Dancing is celebrated as the ultimate distraction in Saturday Night Fever and the stage show, which started its UK tour this week at Milton Keynes Theatre, emphasises the sense of escapism and euphoria.
It is impossible to resist falling into an empathetic rhythm with characters who dynamically and stylishly move their bodies to temporarily move on from the frustrations of their everyday existence. Those disco beats mean everything to Tony Manero and, although his antics as king of the dance floor take place in the 1970s, this seemingly boogie-centric story struts through some timeless concerns. The uncertainty of the future. The difficulties that come with feeling isolated. The desire to meet expectations while becoming who you want to be.
As soon as producer-director Bill Kenwright’s nostalgia-fuelled show explodes into action, the audience is blown away by a kaleidoscope of colour, slick choreography and dizzying strobe lights. The energy is exhilarating and the main message is clear.
Why just survive when you could – should – be dancing?
Tony (Jack Wilcox) is a Brooklyn born and bred Italian American whose life is going nowhere. He is anxious about his future, working in a dead-end job at a hardware store and living at home with parents who perceive him as the black sheep of the family. He gets through weekdays and lives for weekends, when he can indulge his passion for dancing.
Every Saturday night, Tony does his hair, dons his flares and hits the local disco club. He gets a buzz from the high of letting loose and everyone else goes wild over his moves. Tony attracts the admiration of local girl Annette (Billie Hardy), who declares that she will be whoever he needs her to be so that they can dance, and be, together. But he only has eyes for ambitious and talented newcomer Stephanie (Rebekah Bryant), who he eventually persuades to be his partner for the club’s dance competition. United by a desire to move up in the world (even if they have differing ideas of what exactly this ought to mean) they strive to triumph on the dance floor and take steps to overcome their disillusionment with life.
The narrative features misogyny, racism, rape, violence, youthful fatalism and suicide, so the show contains adult themes and strong language. Big feelings and confused understandings are expressed; often in clichés and sometimes without enough time or exploration to prompt an audience to fully engage with the issues. But that hardly matters as the most important and memorable aspect of Saturday Night Fever is the fact that it is packed full of funky, feel-good dancing.
The future is painted as a frightening unknown entity, whereas dancing symbolises living in the moment. Tony only becomes himself when he dances and, although his insecurity comes from knowing that dancing can’t last forever, his pent-up physicality and feverish need to disco is what drives the entire show. Jack Wilcox swivels his hips, thrusts his pelvis, brushes back his hair, strips off his shirt and flexes his muscles with conviction and cocky charisma as the main dancing man. He shimmies, shuffles and hustles with ease. He casually throws in the odd triple pirouette and soars through the air during softly spiralling leaps. He demands attention.
All the dancers are top-notch though. They come alive on the multi-coloured dance floor (which has its own eye-catching moves by way of trippy lighting that flashes in time with the infectious music) under spinning glitterballs in the club. Their bodies gyrate in unison. Fingers point, arms circle, legs swing. Incredible stamina is sustained throughout high-octane routines that contain all the classic scorching hot moves. Everything is polished and professional rather than sweaty and frenzied, which might mean the choreography is more Strictly than Studio 54. But it is so enjoyable to watch, and performed so brilliantly, that analysing how spontaneous and carefree it feels seems churlish. The dancers are amazing and make you want to join in. (Midweek) Saturday night fever mission accomplished!
To paraphrase the lyrics of ‘Disco Inferno’, music in the air lets us know that there is a party somewhere. Fittingly, actor-musicians stand atop towering staircases and platforms above the stage to provide the music needed to get the party (and, subsequently, all that dancing) started and keep it going strong. And the Bee Gees (AJ Jenks, Drew Ferry and Oliver Thomson) sing hit after hit in flawless falsetto from a centre-stage mezzanine. ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘How Deep Is Your Love’, ‘Night Fever’, ‘More Than A Woman’, ‘You Should Be Dancing’ and more. The party is wherever these performers are!
In short, this music and dance extravaganza is a fast-paced, fun show that will win you over with its soundtrack and that fabulous message: we should all be dancing. Get tickets for any day of the week, put on your boogie shoes and expect to be up on your feet for the finale!
*Production photography from the 2019 UK tour by Paul Coltas.
Saturday Night Fever continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 10 September 2022. The UK tour continues until Saturday 26 November 2022.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.