Sydney Lyric Theatre, April 2
Forget the story, acting and music for a moment. Let’s get physical. Let’s talk dancing. This is the best ensemble dancing I’ve ever seen in an Australian production of a musical. Obviously Malik Le Nost’s red-hot choreography (aided by Mitchell Woodcock) is vital to that success, but what has your eyes out on stalks is the execution.
So often large ensembles have weak links: a couple of dancers who are a millisecond out of sync, who don’t kick quite as high, or who can’t bring the same consistently sizzling energy to bear as their colleagues. Not this time. Everyone’s a star. Wherever you look in the ensemble numbers everyone is nailing the moves with the same verve and precision.
That would be the same verve and precision that Dave Skelton’s eight-piece band brings to the music by upping the funk quotient (the pelvic thrust factor), thereby making the Bee Gees’ disco hits more fun to hear than I’d expected. The singers aren’t too bad, either, although two scorching guest spots from Marcia Hines put Paulini Curuenavuli, Bobby Fox, Natalie Conway and Nana Metapule in the shade, with the notable exception of Fox’s outrageous falsetto wailing across Stayin’ Alive.
This is not a stage musical in the conventional sense, in that, as in the original film, the lead characters don’t sing: the music exists for the dancing. Four decades on and John Travolta’s performance as Tony Manero remains a hard act to follow, but Euan Doidge gives it a good nudge. His acting is adequate (the lines allowing little more) and his dancing exceptional, as (perhaps even more so) is that of Melanie Hawkins as Stephanie.
This stripped-down stage adaptation is based on the cuddlier, “PG” film release, rather than the original, harder-edged “R” release. Such nuances and subplots as Tony’s relationship with his parents (Denise Drysdale and Mark Mitchell on a big screen), Bobby (Ryan Morgan) getting a girl pregnant, or Tony’s brother Frank (Stephen Mahy) deciding to quit the priesthood are now so incidental they barely need exist. The show would have been stronger with more of the central story’s humour and drama sketched in, and the wretched – supposedly soul-baring – big ballads expunged. At every appearance these rip the dance floor out from underneath the show and replace it with treacle.
As most may remember, Tony dumps Annette (Angelique Cassimatis) to enter a dance competition with the more accomplished Stephanie. When they win, Tony knows they were out-danced by a Puerto Rican couple who lost for racial reasons, and hands over the trophy and cash prize. This competition is the highlight. Doidge and Hawkins introduce some minor flaws to the their previously razor-sharp work, and meanwhile Erica Stubbs and Chris Van Doren offer a blinding, show-stopping performance as the Puerto Ricans dancing to Salsation.
In fact were this just a dance spectacular with live music would we be much poorer? We definitely would be no poorer if Drysdale and Mitchell disappeared, their appearances as Tony’s parents doing nothing for the show other than drawing attention to the inadequacies of Mitchell’s Bronx accent.
Stephane Roy’s projection-based set design contains many thrilling moments, and Karen Johnson Mortimer has done a commendable job directing the raw material at her disposal (based on a production by Frenchman Stephane Jarny). Trudy Dalgleish contributes striking lighting effects and William Roache suitably sexy costumes. If the story wasn’t so skeletal and wet, and if the ballads were eliminated, this show would easily be worth a much higher score.