Review: 'Saturday Night Fever' musical goes beyond disco

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Jul 10 2015 12:58 PM | Updated as of Jul 12 2015 07:12 PM

Brandon Rubendall (center) leads the cast of “Saturday Night Fever.” Photo from the Facebook page of ATEG

MANILA – The announcement took the cast by surprise.

Amid a deserved standing ovation at curtain call during the opening night of “Saturday Night Fever” at The Theatre of Solaire Resort and Casino last July 3, an executive from the Robert Stigwood Organization announced that this particular production will be touring Australia and China, in addition to the previously reported Malaysia and Singapore runs.

Broadway actor Brandon Rubendall, who was cast in New York City to play the lead role of Tony Manero for director Bobby Garcia’s staging of this 1998 stage musical, and the rest of the largely Filipino actors were obviously ecstatic by the announcement -- the ultimate stamp of approval for a risky, R-rated production.

The musical is actually a near word-for-word adaptation of the popular 1977 movie that turned John Travolta into a global superstar. And it must be stressed that John Badham’s movie is set against a backdrop of a period in American history marked by economic malaise and a growing hopelessness. For Tony, a 19-year-old dropout working at a paint store – as well as for many Americans -- disco offered an escape from his dreary family life: his father is out of the job and his brother has decided to leave the priesthood.

The movie – and musical – also tackles ‘70s-era sexual promiscuity, abortion and racial violence. In short, this isn’t a retro, feel-good musical like “Mamma Mia” or Travolta’s “Grease.”

And that could be troublesome for a musical that has been hyped solely as a nostalgic trip to the heady days of disco. If all you want is to do is dance, you’re better off watching a ‘70s showband at a hotel bar.

But if you’re a big fan of the movie in its dramatic entirety, you will be pleased by the way it was magically transported to the stage. From the opening scene of Tony, paint can in hand, doing his signature walk while singing the Bee Gees’ classic “Staying Alive,” it was immediately clear that Garcia and the rest of the creative team have captured the film’s spirit. More importantly, this scene alone established that Rubendall is perfect for the role.

Rubendall, who towers over the rest of the cast with his tall, lanky physique, not only nails Travolta’s iconic dance steps with energy and grace. He also sings those Bee Gees hits effortlessly and exudes charm in his scenes with Jenna Rubaii, who brings more spunk and attitude to the character of Stephanie Mangano.

Despite the casting of American actors in the lead roles, the Filipinos had their moments, and Mikkie Bradshaw as Annette, who has a big crush on Tony, performs one of the finest scenes in the entire musical, when she turns Yvonne Elliman’s disco anthem “If I Can’t Have You” into a pained plea for love.

Moments like these, when the movie’s popular songs were turned into musical numbers, take these disco classics into another level, allowing the audience to appreciate the songs beyond their catchy grooves. “Staying Alive” becomes a defiant anthem of resiliency, and “More Than A Woman,” a heartfelt love poem. The creators also added other Bee Gees songs like “Tragedy” and “Immortality” to propel the story, although only “What Kind of Fool” felt organic to the material.

The dance numbers, as expected, are still the main attraction, whether it’s the “flash mob” choreography of “Night Fever” or Rubenall’s exuberant solo exhibition in “You Should Be Dancing,” which actually closes Act 1.

But the appeal of “Saturday Night Fever” also lies in the small moments – when Tony says goodbye to his brother (played by Rafa Siguion Reyna) or when he recites facts about the Verrazano with the stage dominated by the outlines of the suspension bridge, beautifully visualized by scenic designer David Gallo.

The nearly word-for-word ending, now situated in the same park bench overlooking the bridge, actually inspires more than any of the dance scenes, and when the intro strains of “How Deep Is Your Love” fills the theater, what more can you ask for?

Dancing is fleeting; but this romantic moment is what you live for – whatever decade you live in.

“Saturday Night Fever” runs all weekends of July at The Theatre of Solaire Resort and Casino.