In the new rock opera that opened Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater, disenfranchised young artists struggle to stake their claim in a city and culture marked by social unrest, corrupt politicians and a prevailing obsession with fame at any expense. No, it’s not a modern-day fable: This Ain’t No Disco—as its title, which borrows lyrics from the Talking Heads song Life During Wartime, suggests—takes us back to the end of the 1970s, when everything and nothing were the same.
Alas, the show—conceived and written by Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator Stephen Trask, Hedwig alum and original Wallflowers drummer Pete Yanowitz and Jersey Boys librettist and Peter and the Starcatcher playwright Rick Elice, with music by Trask and Yanowitz—is much stronger in conveying what hasn’t changed generally than in examining the particulars of its period. Under Darko Tresjnjak’s blazing direction, the production may capture some of the style and pulse of New York as that decade drew to a close, but deeper quirks and contradictions are either brushed over or left unexplored.
That’s a shame, because those details are not only fascinating on their own terms but tell us something about how we got to our present mess. Much of the action in Disco takes place in and around Studio 54, an emblem of both pre-AIDS decadence and a pop music scene as culturally divisive as our political climate is today, where antipathy towards dance music in particular was charged with racism, sexism and homophobia. Sammy, the African-American poet who is our heroine here, describes herself as a punk, a distinction made all the more curious when the actress who plays her, Samantha Marie Ware, sings with a gale force and exquisite tone that evoke the R&B divas of the day far more than, say, Patti Smith.
Aside from their pure energy, in fact, Trask and Yanowitz’s score and orchestrations owe blessedly little to punk. As in Hedwig, the composers summon that movement’s angtsy, anti-establishment spirit while rejecting its disdain for virtuosity. The music—the show’s best feature, by far—is unabashedly lush and quite soulful at times, injecting predictable glimmers of glam into melodies that can soar with pop and theatrical savvy.
If only the characters were drawn with as much invention. Disco’s other youthful protagonist is Chad, a 20-year-old described in the text as “queer, creative and smart. He’s searching for something but he doesn’t know what.” Though Chad is given a beautifully tender presence and a piercing voice by Peter LaPrade, that something never really emerges, beyond the love of friends. Before truly realizing the value in that, Chad must endure a self-promoting publicist who gives him a banal alter ego, and a subsequent spell turning tricks and wallowing in despair.
The publicist, Binky, imbued with appropriate shrillness and clueless self-possession by Chilina Kennedy, emerges as Disco’s most resilient character, and one of its most generic; she’s the kind of hyper-ambitious, vapid shape-shifter who thrives especially well in our own era of branding and rebranding. There’s also a comfortably current feel to the extended family that becomes a source of refuge and healing for both Chad and Sammy, including the “artist and free spirit” Meesh and her gender-bending lover Landa/Landon (respectively played by Krystina Alabado and Lulu Fall, both lovely).
There are more specific, telling nods to the time of Disco, beyond the setting itself. Studio 54’s closeted co-owner Steve Rubell, no slouch at self-promotion himself, is presented as a sort of louche master of ceremonies, played with lavish sleaziness by Theo Stockman. As a character identified simply as “The Artist,” Will Connolly delivers a nicely understated parody of Andy Warhol’s mannered aloofness, and shades of the genuine shyness that reportedly informed it. The production numbers evoke the era’s sense of fraught liberation and chaos, with Camille A. Browne’s kinetic choreography, Aaron Rhyne’s retro-naughty projection design (with lots of screens bearing signs promising illicit pleasures, quaintly) and the shabby flamboyance of Sarah Laux’s costumes contributing to the gritty, exhilarating vibe that Tresjnak sustains.
But if This Ain’t No Disco is never dull, and even intermittently thrilling, it still leaves opportunities not fully realized. Not unlike the decade did itself, come to think of it.
This Ain’t No Disco opened July 24, 2018, at the Linda Gross Theater and runs through August 12. Tickets and information: atlantictheater.org