Social climbing

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Wednesday April 4, 2018
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A dreaming, scheming crew of working-class Brooklyn pals. An ambitious fancy dancer with his sights set on Manhattan. Corny adolescent sex jokes. And sweet romance. Saturday Night Fever?

Jeepers, chucklehead! Despite sharing a few story elements and two-thirds of a title with the misbegotten 2000 Broadway adaptation of a certain disco-era opus, the Saturday Night that opened last weekend in a new staging by 42nd Street Moon productions is a nifty throwback to eras far friendlier to musical theater.

Written in the early 1950s and set in 1929, this seldom-produced show is particularly notable as a fledgling work of its composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. Et tu, Yvonne Elliman? Slated to be Sondheim's Broadway debut, Saturday Night was shelved shortly before its 1955 opening due to the death of a producer. It's been only rarely resurrected. A shame, because this revival, directed by Ryan Weible, reveals the piece to be more than a curio. It's a small-scale comic charmer that bridges the Damon Runyon capers of Guys and Dolls (1950) and the teen romance of Sondheim's actual Broadway debut (as lyricist only), West Side Story (1957).

An opening sequence, featuring the title song and "Class," introduces a wisecracking sextet of buddies, bellyaching their way through a litany of complaints about their lack of ladyfriends. Sondheim's knack for rhythmic patter and penchant for tilting lyrically darkward ("Alive and alone on a Saturday night is dead") are in immediate evidence.

As skinflint Ray, whose check-splitting fervor will be familiar to any hipster who's ever dined out in the Mission, Jack O'Reilly brings period-perfect vocal timing and body language.

Cameron Labrie - all buzzcut, bass notes and braggadocio - tickles as Bobby, the 16-year-old runt of this litter who insists he's the neighborhood's most experienced lothario.

The gang's most ambitious member, Gene (Nikita Burshteyn), is a runner on Wall Street. After losing money he's convinced his chums to invest, Gene speeds down a slippery financial slope, deceiving not only the guys but also his newfound doll, Helen (Amie Shapiro). Burshteyn, with a reedy, graceful frame built for tux and tails, is put to much better use here than in his recent turn in La Cage Aux Folles at SF Playhouse. While he doesn't project his vocals as strongly as the rest of the impressively unmiked company, he transcends the book (by Julius J. Epstein), deftly managing the tricky mix of immature aspiration, outright foolishness, and swoony romance in an awkwardly written character. A passing resemblance to Jared Kushner makes Burshteyn all-the-more believable as a status-crazed social climber.

Shapiro, too, digs deeper than one might expect in the context of a Rube Goldberg frolic. She makes Helen's attraction to Gene palpable, even when mixed with moral disapproval. She also offers a terrific comic turn with her signature number, "Isn't It," during which she affects a comical southern accent. Together, Burshteyn and Shapiro present the audience with the show's most wonderful gift, the limpid ballad "So Many People," a worthy first entry in the true Sondheim canon. (Recorded versions of note include one on the Sondheim on Sondheim cast album (2013) sung by Vanessa Williams and Norm Lewis, and a male-male iteration on the showtune compilation Stage 2: The Human Heart.)

The entire cast commits well to the period material, playing their characters earnestly, and letting the humor of the book and lyrics do its own winking. And from the moment the lights go up, costume designer Bethany Deal's terrific curation of argyle knits, two-toned shoes, newsboy caps and horn-rimmed frames pulls the audience into the period, priming them to laugh at old-fashioned humor and roll with a dusty but delightful farce of a plot.

An unnecessarily bulky fixed set, meant to evoke the Brooklyn Bridge, sometimes leads to overcrowded tableaux and leaves little room for group choreography, adding to the potential misperception that Saturday Night is an inherently small show, a trifle of theatrical history.

In fact, 63 years after it was originally scheduled to debut, Saturday Night arrives surprisingly fresh and altogether entertaining. And that's no jive talkin'.

42nd Street Moon's "Saturday Night" runs at the Gateway Theater through April 15. Tickets ($28-$75):