Stephanie Inglese & Dean Cestari in Saturday Night Fever. Photo:DDP

Saturday Night Fever

Book By Robert Stigwood, Bill Oaks, Sean Cerone, and David Abinanti
Music & Lyrics by Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, and Robin Gibb; Barry Gibb and Abby Galuten; David Abbinanti; David Shire; Walter Murphy; Harry Casey and Richard Finch; Leroy Green and Tyrone Kersey; Ronald Bell/Kool & The Gang; Richard Strauss
Directed by Lee Buckholz

A review by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2022, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

I have to confess that I have never been a fan of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. I found it to be very much of its time, filled with unlikeable characters and rather misogynistic. While the dance numbers were impressive and the music iconic, there is not much there to love. I mean, the hero and his friends gang-rape a woman, and it’s brushed aside like she had been asking for it and boys will be boys. I really don’t get the appeal.

So I was a bit skeptical going in to see the musical version, currently playing at Derby Dinner. But, it really is a different animal. Much of the film’s seedier side and darker aspects have been softened and the story plays much more like a traditional musical.

It tells the story of Tony Manero (Dean Cestari), a young Italian-American in Brooklyn who spends his weekends dancing at a local disco called 2001 Odyssey. He hopes to dance his way out of his life of disillusionment and restlessness, and away from his working-class upbringing. A dance contest at the Odyssey and a beautiful new dance partner named Stephanie (Stephanie Inglese) might just be the chance he needs.

The music, presented diegetically in the film, is given a full-on live performance here. Songs by the Bee Gees and other bands from the 1970s are placed for the most part in the souls of these characters, and for the most part, it works. Whether it’s Tony singing and dancing “Staying Alive” as he goes about his workday, or his friends grooving out to “Boogie Shoes” as they get ready to head to the disco, it mostly works. Only a couple of the songs feel shoehorned in (I’m looking at you, “Jive Talking”). All of this is handled adroitly by the DDP orchestra as conducted by Scott Bradley and his talented musicians, bringing the appropriate level of funk from the era.

Story-wise, the libretto generally manages to tell the film’s story without becoming too depressing or gritty, even though there are some dark moments. It fleshes out some of the film’s characters but leaves a lot of plot threads dangling at the end. In particular, one subplot cuts off abruptly after a moment of tragedy with no sense of closure.

Cestari is the definition of a triple threat here, and his strong performance, voice, and dance moves make Tony a much more likable character than John Travolta’s turn in the movie, and Clay Smith is nicely grumpy as their put-upon and unemployed father Frank. Stephanie Inglese is quite good in a role that could have been reduced to so much eye candy. Joey Banigan Jones acquits herself nicely as Annette, a former flame of Tony’s that can’t let him go, and her poignant rendition of “If I Can’t Have You” is a highlight.

Bobby Conte has some nice moments as Tony’s brother Frank Jr., a former priest, and disappointment to their parents, but the script doesn’t give him much to do. It might be Dick Baker who gives the show’s most memorable performance as Monty, the DJ at the Odyssey. Unrecognizable under an afro, beard, sunglasses, and fur coat, he steals every scene he’s in while belting out and grooving to some classic ’70s disco music. 

Heather Paige Folsom’s energetic choreography is amazing and the cast pulled it off flawlessly. The costumes by Sharon Murray Harrah were period-perfect, but some of the wigs were too much and bordered on the cartoonish. 

The set design by director Lee Buckholz, sound design by Devon Rodlund, and lighting design by Alexa Holloway work together in a way not often seen at the playhouse. Disco balls, a self-illuminated dance floor, and powerful music effects blend to truly create the atmosphere of the disco scene of decades ago.

An improvement on the film, to be sure. Excellent cast, great songs, and a so-so script. To quote another popular song from the period, two out of three ain’t bad.

Featuring Dick Baker, Jillian Prefach Baker, Kyle Braun, Matthew Brennan, Connor Rock Brunken, Dean Cestari, Bobby Conte, Michael Evans, Cami Glauser, Etta Grover, Korey Harlow, Stephanie Inglese, Lemuel Brad Jackson, Joey Banigan Jones, Paul McElroy, Kathleen Meyer, Robert Sharkey, Clay Smith, Embry Thielmeier, Taylor Thomas, Katelyn Webb, and Cary Wiger.

Saturday Night Fever

April 6 – May 22, 2022

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN  47129

Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 14 years. In June 2019 he launched a new company with Jeremy Guiterrez, Theatre Reprise. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Clarksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.