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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: March 27, 2017

Forty years after the film, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is stayin’ alive as a musical

Written by: Ray Routhier
The Broadway Tour production of the musical "Saturday Night Fever" will be at Portland's Merrill Auditorium on Friday. Photos by Hilary Gauld-Camilleri

The Broadway Tour production of the musical “Saturday Night Fever” will be at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Friday. Photos by Hilary Gauld-Camilleri

One of the things Canadian actor Matt Alfano learned when preparing to play the lead in the live musical of the 1977 film “Saturday Night Fever” is that disco was not just a music genre.

“It was more than a style of dance, it was way of life, a way to escape from everyday life,” said Alfano, 31, who stars as Tony, the character John Travolta played in the film. “We need to understand that to put this show on.”

Alfano will lead the current Broadway National Tour of “Saturday Night Fever” when the musical plays at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium Friday. The show is being presented by Portland Ovations.

This is the 40th anniversary year of the film, which introduced much of America to disco culture and disco-era hits of the Bee Gees. The film focused on Tony Manero, a working-class kid from Brooklyn who spends most of his free time in the neighborhood disco and is very proud of his dancing ability and his white three-piece, polyester dancing suit.

The Broadway Tour production of the musical "Saturday Night Fever" will be at Portland's Merrill Auditorium on Friday.   Hilary Gauld-Camilleri photo

The Broadway Tour production of the musical “Saturday Night Fever” will be at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Friday.

The film was a drama, not a musical, though there are so many memorable Bee Gees songs in it, it seems like one. The bigger hits included “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing.” And the film is memorable for dance scenes in which Travolta strikes dramatic poses, including one with one hand on his hip and the other pointing diagonally to the nearest disco ball hanging from the ceiling.

The musical version, which first ran on Broadway in 2000, includes Bee Gees tunes and others of the era sung by the cast. There are also some new songs written just for the musical, to help pull the story along.

Alfano prepared by watching the film and watching ’70s TV dance shows like “Soul Train.” But he says he and the producers don’t want to copy the characters from the film. So Alfano’s Tony is “less of a pretty boy and more gritty” than in the film, said Alfano.

“I was inspired by the movie and try to a certain degree to emulate the essence of the soul of the character,” said Alfano. “But we’re not trying to redo what’s been done.”

Also, Alfano has been dancing since he was three, doing everything from ballet to modern dance, so his Tony is a more physical and sophisticated dancer. The dancing scenes on stage are pretty frenetic, Alfano says, with dancers throwing each other into the air and twirling in a million different directions at once.

“The dancing is very fulfilling for me, the scenes where everyone dances are very easy to lose yourself in,” said Alfano. Alfano grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, on the Canadian prairie. He followed his sister to dance class when he was 3 and never went home, or barely. Through his teen years, he honed his dancing skills and then took acting and singing lessons. He’s worked steadily for the past decade in musicals, including versions of “A Chorus Line,” “West Side Story” and “Tommy.”

He has a fairly pronounced Canadian accent when talking, but a raspy voice that would be at home in Brooklyn. He said doing a Brooklyn accent is not that hard, it just requires study and preparation. Like everything else in a musical.

“It’s an honor and a challenge to have a role like this,” said Alfano. “It’s a matter of doing the research and being prepared.”

WHAT: “Saturday Night Fever,” the Broadway National Tour presented by Portland Ovations
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Merrill Audtiorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $45 to $70

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