I know times are tight, but this won't do. Watching Saturday Night Fever at the Buell, it was hard to remember that the auditorium had hosted such scintillating musicals as Kiss Me Kate, Swing and The Full Monty in the past couple of years. Saturday Night Fever feels grubby and decidedly low-rent.
It's difficult to tell if the performers are really as bad as they seem, or if they're just overwhelmed by the amateurish quality of the entire production: ugly sets, unflattering costumes, jaded choreography, the Buell's usual overwhelming acoustics, and the inauthentic song arrangements. As Tony Manero, Ryan Ashley relies on a small repertoire of struts, poses and hair smoothings. At one point, he takes off his shirt and flashes his bare chest. It's a fine chest, but this move seems like an insult on the part of the director. You can imagine the snickering little focus group that decided some male flesh would titillate the ladies in the audience. In the movie, John Travolta had an innocence and pure joy in movement that excused Tony's bad behavior and made you understand how those Saturday nights could become the one shining element in an otherwise frustrating life. But Ashley is more performer than actor; he's got the moves but not the soul.
As Stephanie, Jennifer Mrozik turns in the one worthwhile performance in the show. She's a decent dancer and has a fine voice, both speaking and singing. I think she can act, too. But here's how inept direction -- in this case by Arlene Phillips, who's also guilty of the choreography -- can sabotage even a skilled actor. In one scene, pretending to be classier than Tony, Stephanie undermines herself by popping in a wad of gum and chewing it loudly. Not a bad idea except for two things: First, Stephanie never again chews gum, which ruins any sense of consistency in the character. Second -- and worse -- the very visible mike hooked to her face transmits every saliva-y snap at high and distasteful volume.
Saturday Night Fever, the Musical
Buell Theatre, 14th and Curtis Streets
Presented by Denver Center
Through March 9, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
Cameron Stevens, as Bobby C., and Dena Digiacinto, as Annette, also have good singing voices and, in addition to Mrozik, there are other talented dancers in Fever, particularly Jessica Hope Cohen, who, wearing a bright red dress, steals all the musical numbers she graces. But the choreography is worse than banal. When the climactic dance contest arrives, the moves of the couples competing with Tony and Stephanie -- many of them apparently cribbed from ice skating -- are fast and frighteningly athletic. The men fling the women around like rag dolls; more than once, you catch your breath in fear for their safety. But while this is going on, meaningless grinning dominates, hands and feet jerk spastically out of control, costumes fly any which way or get scrunched beneath armpits. There's zero visual appeal to any of the movement.
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This is a production without integrity, a product cobbled together to separate theater patrons from their money. And it isn't worthy of the Denver Center.