Raleigh Memorial Auditorium may be the end of the line for the 2002-2003 National Tour of Saturday Night Fever — The Musical, produced by Robert Stigwood and Jon B. Platt, directed and choreographed by Arlene Phillips, and brought to Raleigh by Broadway Series South. But it also may be the big break that New York actor Joey Calveri has worked toward his entire show-business career.
After playing white-polyester-suited Brooklyn disco king Tony Manero's agitated friend Double J for a year and a half, and understudying the lead role of Tony for a year, Calveri has finally gotten his chance to star as Tony Manero — the role that made John Travolta a movie star! — for the final two months of the current tour.
Calveri's Saturday Night Fever co-stars will include Jennie Marshall (Stephanie Mangano), Dena DiGiacinto (Annette). Cameron Stevens (Bobby C), Darren Lorenzo (Monty), José Restrepo (Gus), and Tony Falcon (Double J).
There's no question about it, Calveri says. Playing Tony Manero is his biggest career highlight to date. Previous high points include playing Action in a European tour of West Side Story and playing Kenickie in a U.S. tour of Grease that visited Charlotte, NC last year.
"In 1970s Brooklyn," says Calveri, "you can't go from Point A to Point B because of your income. You are stuck in a bubble. The economy was kind of bad around that time. The only thing that [bored paint-store clerk] Tony Manero had to look forward to was going out at night and partying at this disco [Odyssey 2001], where he becomes a star. Then he comes to realize that he's better than this life he's built for himself."
Calveri says, "Tony Manero has four friends called The Faces. They're kind of a gang of Italian Brooklyn boys. Double J is the angry, aggressive Brooklyn friend whose character is actually mentioned in the original magazine article on which the movie was based. Nik Cohn wrote this article, and [producer] Robert Stigwood saw it and thought it would be a good vehicle for John Travolta, who had just signed a three-movie contract." (Calveri thinks those films were Saturday Night Fever , Grease , and Urban Cowboy ; and Urban Cowboy, which popularized country music just like Saturday Night Fever popularized for disco, was recently transformed into a Broadway musical.)
Joey Calveri says his extensive dance training has helped him most in playing Tony Manero. "[Saturday Night Fever] is a heavy, heavy dance show," says Calveri. The New York actor, who is a native of the Pacific Northwest, admits; "It wasn't much of a struggle to get the accent and that sort of thing. It really came natural with my Italian blood."
Calveri says, "Going out to clubs and dancing every night" helped him quite a bit in playing a character who lived to dance, night after night, in discos. Clubbing helped Calveri understand the role and understand the scene — why [the] show's characters lived to go to dance clubs.
The main challenge of playing Tony Manero, Calveri says, is not trying to differentiate his performance from John Travolta's; it is endurance. "I only get eight minutes off the stage during two hours, not counting intermission," Calveri notes. "I don't get a lot of time offstage for breathers. It's an endurance test. It really is."
Calveri even admits that he has mined John Travolta's performance for usable nuggets. "You have to have John Travolta mannerisms to help the audience relate to the character," Calveri claims. "You have to put in the walk and some of the talk. It's better for the show that way."
Nan Knighton's stage adaptation of Saturday Night Fever, which she created in collaboration with Arlene Phillips, Paul Nicholas, and Robert Stigwood, debuted in London in 1998 and premiered in New York in 1999. Calveri says it differs from the popular 1977 film in several significant ways. Tony® Award nominee Knighton (The Scarlet Pimpernel) focuses on the dance aspects of Norman Wexler's screenplay, which was based on Nik Cohn eye-opening magazine article about disaffected Brooklynites in their 20s who danced the night away in the borough's discotheques. Instead of developing the characters or exploring the adverse influences of the drugs and violence depicted in the original screenplay, Calveri says, Knighton's script sets up the show's high-octane dance numbers.
In the musical, Joey Calveri says, the songs by The Bee Gees (i.e., Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb) — which helped the movie soundtrack sell a record 40 million copies — have been assigned to various characters. "Everyone sings [the songs] live," says Calveri. "The orchestrations are great."
So, "How Deep is Your Love?," "If I Can't Have You," "Jive Talkin'," "Night Fever," "Stayin' Alive," and "You Should Be Dancing" will take on added dimensions. The Brothers Gibb also wrote two new songs, "Immortality" and "It's My Neighborhood," especially for the musical.
"They take The Bee Gees' music and they actually incorporate it in the storyline," says Calveri. "… The storyline has actually been cut down a lot, because the audience is looking forward to the disco scenes and all the dancing. The storyline is still there. It's just not as in depth."
Saturday Night Fever — The Musical opened at the Palladium in London's famed West End in May 1998 and closed in February 2000. Saturday Night Fever played the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway in New York City from September 1999 through December 2000.
Joey Calveri played Double J in the first National Tour, which hit in road in February 2001. He left the 2002-2003 tour 10 months ago to take some time off. Then the show's producers brought him back to play Tony Manero for the tour's last two months.
The current show, like the Broadway production, features the direction and choreography of Arlene Phillips; the set design of Robin Wagner; the costume design of Suzy Benzinger; the lighting design of Andrew Bridge; the sound design of Mick Potter; the musical supervision, dance, and vocal arrangements of Phil Edwards; and the orchestrations of Nigel Wright.
"It's important that the audience know that this is a pop-culture piece," says Joey Calveri. "It's not a piece of deep theater like Lay Miz [Les Misérables]. It's not a scripted musical like Oklahoma! It's an affectionate look back at the 1970s of Saturday Night Fever, but it's more like a dance concert with a plot."
Since assuming the lead role in Saturday Night Fever, Calveri has received some highly positive reviews. For example:
"There is more of the Fonz than Travolta in Calveri's take on his character," wrote Punch Shaw in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, "but it works just fine. His Tony is even more vain and swaggering, and the dance moves delivered by this incredibly fit and athletic hoofer are perhaps even more impressive.
"Calveri's steps are better than his vocals," Shaw claimed, "but this is ultimately a minor issue since the female leads, Dena DiGiacinto (Annette) and Jennie Marshall (Stephanie) are such great singers. Their solos are all strong and their duets with Calveri are standout moments.
"But the main reason to see this show is the choreography. The big ensemble numbers that have about a dozen couples recreating the absurd, disco-ball-lit gyrations and poses of 1970s dances are so well done that you forget how ridiculous everybody looks," said Punch Shaw.
Broadway Series South presents Saturday Night Fever — The Musical Tuesday-Friday, June 3-6, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 7, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 8, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16-$66. 919/834-4000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/844061 [inactive 12/03] or 919/231-4575 (groups of 20 or more). http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2002-2003/encore.html#snf [inactive 4/04] or http://www.feverontour.com/ [inactive 11/03].