Friday, April 6, 2018

"Saturday Night"

Saturday Night
Julius J. Epstein (Book); Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics)

The Cast of Saturday Night
While it is not that unusual to hear about a first-born baby arriving late, forty-three years is probably some kind of a Guinness world record.  That is exactly how long it took Stephen Sondheim’s first musical, Saturday Night, to receive its first professional production in London after a last-minute aborted opening in the 1954-55 Broadway season, due to the show’s prime financier dying suddenly.  Written when he was just twenty-three after encouragement from his much-older mentor and friend, Oscar Hammerstein, Saturday Night has few hints of the ground-breaking, Sondheim musicals to follow (Company, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Assassins) and in fact is called by the great lyricist/composer, “my baby pictures.”  And even though the musical’s lyrics are often corny and missing the rapid, rhyming complexities of later musicals and even though the music itself is more fluff and hardly resembling at all the soaring, often discordant, sometimes operatic masterpieces to come, when the musical finally arrived off-Broadway in 2000, Sondheim refused to do a lot of revisions.  “You don’t touch up a baby picture – you’re a baby,” he explained in The New York Times.

In keeping with its twenty-five-year-old tradition to preserve “the history and vitality of musical theatre through the production of lesser-known works by recognized composers,” 42nd Street Moon stages a high-energy, quite entertaining Saturday Night.  While young Sondheim’s music and lyrics are more ‘30s and ‘40s in sound and missing the longevity possibilities of Gershwin, Kerns, or Porter whose oft-silly musicals produced songs still popular today, 42nd Street’s talented and enthusiastic cast make the most that they can of a set of his juvenile-produced songs, none of which is very memorable past the last bow.  And while the book by Julius J. Epstein (based on his and Philip G. Epstein’s play, Front Porch in Flatbush) has a plot thin and transparent with everything from get-rich-schemes-gone-amok, boy-meets-girl-by-chance, mixed-up-identities, and cops-and-jails that all lead to the inevitable happy ending, Ryan Weible directs this cast of fifteen with enough tongue-in-cheek, shenanigans, and heart-felt warmth to bring plenty of smiles to the ever-loyal 42nd Street Moon audience.

The musical opens in the spring of 1929 with four neighborhood chums hanging out at their friend’s house on a Saturday night, with none having a date (again).  In their assorted bow ties, plaid vests, and knee-high argyles, the four (played by Mike Birr, Jesse Cortez, Jack O’Reilly, and Nathaniel Rothcock) set the night’s standard high with a funny, rousing “Saturday Night” where their harmoniously strong voices and wide-eyed faces pop in and out of opened newspapers in hilariously choreographed sequences.  The same foursome continues to be an evening’s highlight as they reprise this number (again with open newspapers) and argue in silly song about who paid what “In the Movies.”

Nikita Burshteyn
The friend whose house the four often find themselves is Gene, a low-level, stock floor runner who sees his life only being complete if he wears a tux and frequents only the best clubs and restaurants.  On this Saturday night, he meets Helen while both are trying to sneak into a high-end club.  Their subsequent sidewalk dance leaves its love mark on him even though both are putting on airs and pretending to be the part of the rich set they are not.  Nikita Burshteyn is the dashing, smiling Gene who is always scheming how to break into society.  He brings a smooth, classy air to his singing and an ability to dance the night away – either alone with cane and top hat (“Class”) or with his newfound girl, Mildred (to the romantic crooning of DC Scarpelli in “Love’s a Bond”).  His Gene has personality bursting with an evident vigor for life, with an optimism totally unrealistic, and with a willingness to gamble whatever he (or his cousin or his friends) has in order to make the quick bucks to secure his dreams.  Never mind that he is counting on the 1929 stock market and a hot tip to make it rich quick.

His love-at-first-sight, Helen, is swept off her feet that first night (literally, as they dance in front of the nightclub to the excellent playing of Music Director Daniel Thomas on piano, Nick Di Scala on reeds, and Ken Brill on keyboard).  She becomes a constant caution flag to Gene’s wilder side, with Amie Shapiro bringing a pleasant voice that slowly strengthens in melodic confidence and clarity, delivering a particularly strong “All for You” as the story peaks in a series of crises that Gene has brought upon himself.

Kalon Thibodeaux & Courtney Hatcher
Among a number of cameo appearances, the strongest outing is provided by Gene’s married friends, Hank (Kalon Thibodeaux) and Celeste (Courtney Hatcher).  They each bring smile-producing Brooklyn-accents, personas that pop and sparkle, and vocal pipes that open up with gusto and in fun as they each remember her/his version of how they once met in “I Remember That.”

The book of Saturday Night that keeps returning to the opening dilemma of what to do on a dateless night in the big city is a mixed bag with its more dominating story line of a romance trying to survive a guy’s reckless schemes, white lies, and downright thievery from friends and family in order to live the high life.  The songs are just OK but never awful, especially as delivered by the talented 42nd Street cast.  But what particularly stands out in this particular production are the parade of period costumes designed by Bethany Deal.  The entire evening is a fashion show of both the fun and the fantastic, the everyday and the special evening out, the local boys and the downtown girls.  Dresses glitter with a thousand sparkles, plaids and pants come in every color, and feathers find their way to fluttering positions.  

The good news is that any time the Saturday Night songs of Sondheim are not quite the showstoppers that we will come to know in his later shows, the costumes and the comics of the 42nd Street Moon cast keep the show moving forward in often delightful manners.

Rating: 3.5 E

Saturday Night continues through April 15, 2018 at 42nd Street Moon,
215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.

Photos by Ben Krantz Studio

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