Saturday Night Fever

Rated 2.0 There was a time when big Broadway musicals became so-so movies that suffered from too much lip-synching and watered-down momentum. Nowadays, the trend goes the other way, with hit films becoming theatrical kewpie dolls. The current case is Saturday Night Fever, a touring production currently offered through the Broadway Series at Sacramento Community Center Theater.It is entirely possible to morph a popular movie into a successful theatrical event. In fact, we experienced the transformation earlier this season with The Full Monty. The satisfying stage version featured an original score and other strategic changes, as well.

By comparison, Saturday Night Fever is a mere hand-me-down. The big ensemble dance numbers are wonderful and full of movement. Musically, however, the cover versions (sans falsetto) of associated Bee Gees hits lack energy. Unlike the movie, the stage version asks the dancers to sing—and they’re not particularly good. And the best song in the show (also the encore) is “Disco Inferno,” originally sung by The Trammps, a black group that used self-mocking levity to take the music into a higher category.

Truth be told, disco was originally about blacks and gays and boldness, in your face—at least, that’s the way I remember it, having lived through the 1970s. This show has an almost entirely white cast, without a hint of homosexuality. It’s all tamed down, even in comparison with celluloid.

Dramatically, this show has other problems. Lead actor Ryan Ashley (playing John Travolta’s role) is a fiery dancer; he’s solid in that capacity. But he’s a journeyman actor and a poor singer.

The other difficulty is that Broadway shows move in real time. When the dancing ensemble leaves to change costumes and gulp Gatorade, the spotlight is turned over to solo performers who are less than compelling in the torch-song capacity. You can literally feel the show’s momentum ebbing away.

Another problem is that the plot suggests a dark story: vital 20-somethings working menial day jobs and escaping into a glittering disco dream by night, snorting coke, dancing and then heading to parked cars for serial sex.

What’s more damaging, in dramatic terms, is when bonds of romance and brotherhood are broken, or a girlfriend turns up pregnant, or someone dies—you barely feel a ripple. These things should have impact.

Saturday Night Fever plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, plus 2 p.m. matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Sacramento Community Center Theatre, 1301 L Street; (916) 264-5181 or (916) 557-1999; $10-$65. Through March 23.