Completed in 1955, Saturday Night contains the first score by Stephen Sondheim, the acclaimed composer and lyricist. This musical was an adaptation of a play, Front Porch in Flatbush by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, known for writing the screenplay of the movie Casablanca. The death of the lead producer led to the show being canceled. It remained unproduced until 1997, where it premiered in England. It was subsequently performed in Chicago in 1999, and then Off-Broadway in 2000.
Set in Brooklyn in 1929, it is about a group of young friends. One of them, Gene, has a low level job at a Wall Street brokerage firm. He’s a dreamer who yearns and strives for a grand life in Manhattan through get rich quick schemes. After attempting to crash an event at The Plaza Hotel, he meets Helen. Romance and complications follow.
The York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti produce vintage musicals in concert versions. “Mufti” is defined as “In street clothes. Without the trappings of a full production.” Here, this is characterized by very simple production values, short rehearsal periods, and with the actors carrying scripts, performed for brief runs.
The York is celebrating their 20th season and this is their 100th show. It is fitting that these milestones are being commemorated by showcasing the work of one of the preeminent figures of musical theater. Their small-scale version of Saturday Night is exuberant, very entertaining and revelatory.
This is all chiefly due to the talented cast of 15, largely composed of energetic youthful performers and several excellent mature character actors. Everyone effortlessly appears to be Brooklyn denizens and all bring comedic talent and depth to their roles. That they rehearsed for less than a week before giving their first performance makes their accomplishments even more considerable. Great credit must go to casting director Geoff Josselson for assembling them.
Quirkily handsome Ben Fankhauser as “Gene” is a dynamo of boyish charm, acting and singing talent. With total ease he glides through the show conveying the humor and pathos of a poor young man with big dreams.
Following her Broadway debut as Rocky‘ “Adrian,” Margo Seibert as ‘Helen” again exhibits a great affinity for tenderly portraying working class women romantically involved with troubled men. With girlishness, fierceness and conviction, she is funny and touching simultaneously.
Matthew Bauman, Jeremy Greenbaum, Olli Haaskivi, Michael Thomas Holmes, Greg Kamp, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Jared Loftin, Lindsay Mendez, Kenita Miller, Lance Roberts, Matthew Scott, Jim Stanek and Dana Steingold, comprise the rest of this superb ensemble.
Director Stafford Arima makes remarkable use of the confines of the small space. The large cast is meticulously maneuvered on stage and inventively through the theater’s aisle past the audience. Her work with the actors is wonderfully evident from their rich characterizations.
Black and white slide projections depicting the period such as the Brooklyn Bridge, tenement buildings, and The Plaza Hotel are sparingly used, creating a subtle yet evocative visual quality. The stage is set with simple tables, chairs, and music stands for scripts. Brian Nason’s seemingly purposeful lighting design is inspired.
Pianist and conductor Mark Mitchell with drummer Greg Joseph excellently perform the score. They are aided by the knowledgeable guidance of music supervisor Paul Gemignani, the music director of over 40 Broadway shows, including many of Sondheim’s.
Those familiar with Sondheim’s work but unfamiliar with this one, might be struck by the relatively light tone of the score. There is also the thrill of hearing unknown Sondheim songs for the first time that clearly have his signature.
Written for an intended musical comedy with slight dramatic overtones, the songs fully serve the material with much humor. Yet, there is also the bittersweet quality that would later become his trademark. The music and lyrics here uncannily foreshadow the texture of his future shows such as the lyrics of West Side Story, and the scores of Company, Follies and Merrily We Roll Along.
That he wrote such an accomplished work as this, with its variety of authentic sounding 1920’s tunes, in his early 20’s even further confirms his greatness.
One example is the jaunty yet wistful song “In the Movies” that displays his future signature qualities:
“In the movies, when a girl has come
From the wrong side of the tracks,
In a week she has a wealthy chum
Who can buy her presents at Saks,
You can start with a bagel
And end up with Conrad Nagel
On the screen,
But in life you wind up
Right behind a
Pillar in the mezzanine!”
Saturday Night (November 8 – 16, 2014)
York Theatre, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call (212) 935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org/membership
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission