Staying alive? Barely
Thursday 07 May 1998
The new stage version of is not so much a musical as a marketing manoeuvre. As an attempt to cash in on the mysterious retro- rush to the 70s and to exploit the Travolta-connection, the show has its own kind of cynical coherence. But it dismally fails to rework the movie on its own theatrical terms - a fact that's as plain as the mikes which curl round the faces of all the principals, making them look like a convention of displaced air traffic controllers.
It's an odd proposition - a stage musical developed from a film that, despite the soundtrack and the disco dancing, went out of its way not to be a musical in the first place. None of the characters sings in the original : The maddeningly addictive Bee Gees numbers - "Meaningless songs in very high voices" as the spoof-group The Heebee Geebees put it - was like a benign infection pulsing through the veins of the 70s working class Brookliners whose only escape from the dull routine of directionless jobs was the tribal rapture of the dance floor at the weekend.
From the first scene, you can tell that this theatrical adaptation is going to have to ditch precisely what gives the material its dramatic tension. Instead of the pent-up quality Travolta conveyed as he walked down the street in that bouncing strut - paint can in hand, Bee Gees music revolving in his head - Adam Garcia lopes on to what quickly becomes a full song-and-dance company rendition of "Stayin' Alive". The energy you need to feel can only be properly channelled and discharged in the confines of the club is released out there in the street. The musical comedy convention that you're free to launch into unfettered self-expression any place any time is about as useful to the atmosphere of this story as a crack in a pressure cooker.
Hence the lack of much euphoric lift in Arlene Phillips' big choreographic set-pieces - a pulsing parade of the hot pants, platform heels, and multiple polyester atrocities that make the 70s fashion revival feel like one of the crueller tricks time has pulled on us lately. Garcia, who goes through the moves with indomitable efficiency, doesn't dance as though Tony's sense of identity depended on it. He's a bland, muscular pretty-boy who looks as if he'd be happier partnering "Barbie" than Anita Louise Combe's impressive Stephanie, the uppity, underlyingly insecure, miss who has little right to the airs she affects. You need to believe that, in contrast to her, Tony, with his stubborn pride and inarticulate sincerity, is somehow genuinely above the surroundings in which he's stuck. But, from the outset, Garcia comes across as just a passing cultural tourist in this milieu. And for all of Phillips' promise that she would bring out "the very dark, very sexist, very racist" undertones of the story, the scrappy dramatic scenes have the perfunctoryness of the filler in a poor conventional musical.
Which is what, with notable success, this version of mostly impersonates. It doesn't even rate on the it's-so-bad-it's-good scale, though there is one blissfully naff sequence where Simon Greiff's Bobby, the nerdy little loser who has got his girlfriend pregnant, gets to holler out the Bee Gees song "Tragedy" in one of those grandiosely self-pitying and tonsil-revealing moments without which no modern musical is quorate. You wonder if, in plumping for "tragedy", he's got quite the right genre.
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