BWW Interview: Stayin' Alive: Panel Explores the World of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER

BWW Interview: Stayin' Alive: Panel Explores the World of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER

The very first number in the stage version of Saturday Night Fever is an ensemble piece, Stayin' Alive, which sets the tone for the raw, realistic musical drama which follows. "This show gave us a little bit of an edge and by bookending it with Beauty and the Beast and Singin' in the Rain, which are sweet and a little sugary, this enabled us to do something a bit different - something with an edge, bite and grit," says Maine State Music Theatre's Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark. Clark, together with cast members Jacob Tischler (Tony Manero), Alexandra Matteo (Stephanie Mangano), Christina Carlucci (Pauline), and Anthony J. Gasbarre III (Joey), are speaking to BWW's Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold in the season's third Peek Behind the Curtain panel discussion at Curtis Memorial Library, devoted to the exploration of the company's current main stage production of Saturday Night Fever, playing on the Pickard stage until August 4.

Clark talks about the differences between the stage version and the iconic 1977 movie starring John Travolta. "Not unlike Grease, we all remember the movie fondly. For many of us when Saturday Night Fever came out, it was shocking, amazing, awesome. There was nudity and situations that as young people we didn't even know existed. It was cool and naughty and forbidden, and that made us love it all the more. But when we revisit the movie as an adult, we recognize that even by today's standards there are scenes and circumstances that are R, even X-rated. And, of course, we could not put those on the stage in a live production. The version we are using at MSMT is the fourth iteration of the show, the North American version put together by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti, and there is another version in the works right now. It is a show that has seen a great many alterations, cut and paste, and changes." But Clark and the panel concur, the material keeps its appeal.

The reasons for that are numerous beginning with the dancing, the score, the incredibly fine scene work. Asked to explore these factors, Clark begins the discussion citing the score - the top selling album of all time. "It is hard to escape hearing these tunes wherever you go. People know them and sing them" - (he recounts an amusing anecdote about a lady sitting behind him opening night singing along "loud and proud" obviously oblivious to where she was). "It is great music that evokes images of the disco era for anyone who lived it and for those who didn't, the score stands as a great cultural example of the era and helps them experience the period."

Then there is the amazing dancing. Tischler, who styles himself "an occasional dancer," yet tears up the dance floor as Tony, talks about the experience of performing this choreography and the meaning of dance in the show. "Curt has assembled some of the craziest dance talent I have ever worked with. There is a performance intern who studied dance from age two" [for example]. I started taking jazz class once a week in high school and ballet once a week in college," he says by way of comparison. He recalls his audition for the show at the Westchester Broadway Theatre Three years ago when he came to audition for Gus and was called back for Tony. "I realized there I was with dancers from West Side Story or ones who had done Saturday Night Fever at North Shore Music Theatre. I was the least trained, least experienced, smallest performer in the room. I decided I was not going to try to compete with these guys. I was going to be myself and not try to emulate anyone else, least of all John Travolta."

Tischler convinced director Richard Stafford, who entrusted him with the part, which he has now played four times, this most recent production at MSMT for director/choreographer Mark Martino. Tischler says he approaches Tony's dancing "as a character quality. I am not trying to be a proficient technical dancer; I am trying to be the best dancer at the club because that is Tony's truth. He needs to show up and burn up that dance floor. My goal as a Tony 'impersonator' is to make you forget the technicalities of dancing and make you feel the emotional undercurrent."

Gasbarre seconds Tischler's comments about the strong emotional element dancing provides for all the characters. In his approach to Joey, one of the four "Faces," he says he finds motivation in the notion that "If you've got the moves, you got the ladies, you got the respect. Tony is out there grooving. He's tough; he's got the swagger, the style, the girls - all the things that are very culturally relevant in the Italian-American community in which they live. Joey follows Tony into battle, and he follows him onto the dance floor."

Matteo agrees that dance is an avenue of escape not only for Tony, but also for her own character Stephanie. Describing Stephanie's relationship with Tony as that of "kindred spirits," she says she does not believe Stephanie wants to be a professional dancer. "She just wants more." It is a notion which resonates with her as an artist and as the child of first generation American parents. "I grew up in Kansas, which is great, but I wanted more. I wanted to leave, to go to New York."

Clark adds that he believes this is why the audience loves Stephanie and Tony - "because every person in this room has had that feeling [of wanting more] at some time in their lives."

Matteo rejoins that she thinks Stephanie and Tony "help each other become better people; as the story progresses, you see Stephanie soften a little and Tony smarten up a little bit."

And Clark thinks the hard exterior which Stephanie tries to project "acts as a mirror for Tony to see himself, and he doesn't like what he sees."

Carlucci points out that the metaphor of escape is depicted in the set design by the ever-present Brooklyn Bridge. "These characters are stuck in their world. For Stephanie, the bridge is a way out of Bay Ridge. For Pauline, especially because of her religious beliefs, there is no way out. Her life, like that of the Faces will never change."

Gasbarre agrees that Joey and the other Faces are firmly rooted in this Bay Ridge milieu. He sees his character as a little bit of a stereotype. " He is macho; he cares about his hair, his clothes; he is a bit f a typical Italian paesano. They are gang members, toughs who go to the disco on Saturday night to escape the harshness of their environment. There is a bravado in everything he [and his friends] do."

The panel then turns to discussing how the production and they as actors have gone about creating these characters and the world of their blue collar, Italian-American immigrant Brooklyn community so vividly. Dialect is an important factor. Tischler says the dialect "is a character in and of itself," but that he avoids getting so deep into it that he sounds like a cartoon.

Gasbarre concurs, saying it is important to sound "real," and Matteo describes her process of achieving the result "all by ear." You are given "certain words or sounds that always happen to key into and after that, it is just listening. You can hear when you are in the pocket. It feels weird in the mouth when you are not."

But not only do than the speech patterns, costumes, authentic period choreography, not to mention the excellence of the music and dance bring this particular production to life, but it is also the performers' connection to the material and the level of dramatic truth. Says Gasbarre, "The dancing is great, but the acting is phenomenal. Everyone steps up to the plate and delivers every single time."

Clark notes that in the audition process he and his team kept coming back to the leading actors despite quite a few other contenders. "Because Alex and Jacob had done this three times with Richard Stafford, we wondered if they were too cemented in that production to work with a new director's concept. But the beautiful thing was that Mark Martino intentionally kept giving them different directions, and they handled it beautifully. And we are the beneficiaries of that!"

Each of the cast members recounts his own personal connection to the material and the process by which they went about inhabiting then truth of these personages. Carlucci says her own mother was eighteen years old in 1977, and she was able to use her as a resource about the period, noting that "Life was simpler; people were less concerned about the future and more about the next day, and the community was safer and friendlier. It's all relatable to me when I look at Mom's yearbook."

Gasbarre says his parents also provided an introduction to the times. "I grew up with the movie. My parents went to discos, and my Mom even worked at a disco. I love the music, and as far as the plot, I relate most to the longing to leave. Where I come from that is a very common story. I know some of these people and that gives me an emotional connection."

Matteo sees much of her own mother in the character of Stephanie Mangano, while Tischler remarks that though his own upbringing in rural Vermont was very different from Tony's urban reality, "All people are the same, and all people are different. The human experience is universal." [When I build a character], "I find the similarities first and latch onto those. As an actor you have to bring yourself to an understanding of the characters; we have to be able to bring ourselves to our roles."

Carlucci expands this idea. "In being an actor everything is about psychology, about getting into the heads of characters, of living their truths and circumstances." Carlucci, who has a minor in child psychology, says she also studied the [Sanford] Meisner technique. "Meisner is about moment to moment, working off the other person so that it [the performance] changes a little bit every day. It is never exactly the same." She gives the example of Pauline's last scene where she comes on stage and Tony delivers to her some tragic news. Without speaking a word, she dissolves into heart-wrenching sobs. "It' beautiful because Jacob gives me everything I need to make it easy for me to go to the place I need to go. You always have to find your own kernel of truth in every acting moment - that little part of your own life that you can latch onto, something similar in your own experience and use that. When I do, then I go our and see Jacob's face, and I allow all that emotion to pass through me. That's when the moment becomes authentic and people relate to it."

Tischler responds by saying that while he appreciates Carlucci's praise, "The only thing I am trying to do there is to be honest."

To which Carlucci replies, "And that is what makes a good actor - that honesty."

Clark reinforces this idea of dramatic honesty and emotional authenticity. "There are actors who can cry on cue, and occasionally that might work in a film, for example. But if an actor can find the emotion to cause the crying actually to happen rather than just portraying it, that is much more compelling to watch." He goes on to say that in casting there are what he calls 'fire cracker personalities.' They are actors that can handle whatever is thrown at them, and this cast is full of these. This is a blessing that allows us to create truth and reality - but a heightened reality. Normal is not stage worthy but heightened dramatic reality spurs an audience to think, to feel, to realize something, to become better people. In Saturday Night Fever, there is so much to learn about personalities and relationships."

Photo courtesy of MSMT, Olivia Wenner, photographer

Saturday Night Fever continues its run at MSMT's Pickard Theater until August 4. 207-725-8769 www.msmt.org

The final Peek Behind the Curtain exploring Singin' in the Rain will be held August 15, 2018, at noon at the Curtis Memorial Library. Free and open to the public.

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

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