Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Saturday Night
42nd Street Moon
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's review of Amadeus and Patrick's review of The Effect


Nikita Burshteyn and Amie Shapiro
Photo by Ben Krantz Studio
On the surface, Saturday Night feels like an old-fashioned good-time musical. The story concerns a group of friends living in 1929 Brooklyn, none of whom have a date for Saturday night, nor the cash to fund a night on the town should they find a girl willing to go out with them. But the book (by Julius J. Epstein, best known for writing the screenplay for Casablanca) doesn't follow the standard boy-meets-girl-etc. plotline, turning instead down alleys of scams, subterfuge, and double-dealing. Yes, a boy (Gene, played by Nikita Burshteyn) meets a girl (Helen, Amy Shapiro), but he seems far more interested in getting rich than he does in wooing her. To achieve his goal, he will lie, misappropriate funds, lead his friends into unwise investments—but all with great charm and a winning personality that somehow camouflages his underhandedness.

With this dark core, it seems appropriate that the music and lyrics were written by a young Stephen Sondheim, who would go on to write some of the darkest examples of musical theatre, including Sweeney Todd, Assassins and Passion, among others. The score—while hinting at some of the melodies and harmonies that will later characterize Sondheim's work—fits squarely in the tradition of Broadway musicals, with some lovely ballads, graceful waltz-tempo numbers, and energetic uptempo tunes. Sondheim's flair for clever rhymes is also on occasional display, though not reaching the heights of much of his later work.

What this production of Saturday Night has in spades is the sincere love of musical theatre that is so evident in the work of the team at 42nd Street Moon. Overall, the cast is excellent, especially when they harmonize as a full chorus. They have an easy rapport with each other, and their enthusiasm for performing makes us root for their success.

Their efforts are hampered by two key problems. First, Epstein's story. The lead character, Gene, is a minor functionary at a Wall Street firm. He is, thanks to his job, privy to some information about a stock that is primed to skyrocket (insider trading, anyone?) and has convinced his friends to chip in to form a syndicate to purchase some shares and quickly improve their fortunes. But before he is prepared to make the trade, he heads into Manhattan (in an attempt to crash a society party), where he meets Helen. Later—minor spoiler alert—he will use his friends' funds to impress not Helen, but a real estate agent, which will then require him to do some robbing of Peter to pay Paul that leads to more complications that are (mostly) resolved by curtain. Though the show takes place in 1929 and involves stock market speculation, there is oddly no mention of the great crash that occurred in October of that year.

The second major problem is with Brian Watson's scenic design. It attempts to be monumental, with two central arches that echo the Brooklyn Bridge—which is fine, Brooklyn being where much of the action takes place. But when Watson combined the bridge elements with a mass of faux-stone elements (which the cast is called upon to rearrange before almost every scene), and an outline of the Manhattan skyline upstage of the arches that also hides the three-person orchestra, the overall effect is one of overcrowding and chaos. It's amazing how something so monochromatic and dull can pull focus from a troupe of talented performers (wearing wonderful costumes by designer Bethany Deal), attempting to ply their trade in the cramped confines he has created for them.

For lovers of musical theatre, 42nd Street Moon is a local treasure. They can be counted on for a broad range of shows from the wildly popular to the very obscure. This one is obscure for a reason, mainly that Sondheim himself, at least until 1997, never wanted it performed (after its first Broadway run was cancelled due to the death of its lead producer), feeling it wasn't representative of his compositional skills. But if you're a Sondheim completist, this is your chance to see his least-performed work, presented with vigor and passion by local theatre artists. If you can ignore the awful set and embrace the odd darkness of the story, you'll probably have a fine time at Saturday Night, whether you have a date or go stag.

Saturday Night, through April 15, 2018, at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 6:00pm, with matinees Sundays at 3:00pm, and a student matinee April 7 at 2:00pm. Tickets are $25-$75, available at 42ndStreetMoon.org, or by calling 415-255-8207, Tuesdays-Fridays 11:00am to 5:00pm.


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