A troubled new musical from a talented creative team, This Ain’t No Disco intertwines the stories of several wanna-be artists who struggle to make names for themselves in 1979-1980 Manhattan. They mostly appear to have scant talent, but they surely possess a hunger for fame. In the meantime, they hang outside of Studio 54, begging for admittance.
Actually, Chad (Peter LaPrade) already is inside the club, as a willowy busboy who catches the lecherous eye of Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell (Theo Stockman). Chad then gets involved with Binky (Chilina Kennedy), a ruthless climber who promotes him as a graffiti artist and then weds him in a publicity stunt that backfires. Poor Chad hits the skids as a hustler.
Chad’s chum from high school days, Sammy (Samantha Marie Ware), a soulful punk-rock singer and a devoted single mom, achieves celebrity after she is mentored by The Artist (Will Connolly, made up to resemble Andy Warhol), but later falls prey to drugs. Then there’s Meesh (Krystina Alabado) and Landa/Landon (Lulu Fall), name-dropping minions in the club’s checkroom and modernist sculptors who become a couple.
Meanwhile, the D.A. (Eddie Cooper), an unscrupulous politician seeking headlines, digs up dirt regarding tax evasion and cocaine habits in the back office at 54.
Will Chad ever find happiness? Can Sammy survive stardom? What’s Binky’s latest make-over? And how come Steve Rubell is sporting a pharaoh’s headdress and leading an Egyptian floor show number?
All of these glitter ball melodramatics are rendered through the grinder of a bombastic rock opera-type musical treatment in This Ain’t No Disco, from Atlantic Theater Company. With music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, the estimable composer of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in collaboration with songwriter Peter Yanowitz, this tiresome show confirms how a poor storyline can scuttle even the brightest of musical talents.
Their score is a muddy combo of dud lyrics—“epithet” and “soubriquet” don’t rhyme, by the way—and thudding, percussive tunes not especially redolent of the era, other than the D.A.’s thunderous recitatives, which sound a bit like outtakes from Jesus Christ Superstar. Trask and Yanowitz developed their ludicrous libretto in association with Rick Elice, a smart maker of Jersey Boys and Peter and the Starcatcher, who should have known better.
One can almost forgive the clichés of the book and the dreariness of the score if these guys had managed to communicate something of the fun, the sexiness and, yes, the romance of those high times in New York, when some youngsters truly pursued art for art’s sake and not merely to achieve celebrity. This febrile musical, unfortunately, is mostly about gatecrashers, poseurs, predators, and sleazoids, and why should anyone care about their doings?
Darko Tresnjak, whose direction gives these proceedings a deadly serious tone, once staged Anastasia and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, so how he delivers Disco is puzzling. Jason Sherwood’s grim, two-level setting of trundling scaffolding and paltry projected images is unsightly even when it is shaded by the glowing colors within Ben Stanton’s lighting. The choreography by Camille A. Brown gives the musical’s desultory doings energy, although she risibly provides one presumably avant-garde number that recalls Loie Fuller’s butterfly dance of the 1890s.
The performances range from good to poor; on the positive end is Ware, who is a powerful vocalist and a sufficiently sincere actor to get through Sammy’s ministrations in mommy mode without breaking into giggles; on the down side is Stockman’s thoroughly repulsive depiction of a maniacal Steve Rubell, who in real life possessed a bit of charm.
Although the Atlantic misses with This Ain’t No Disco, let’s remember that the organization also premiered Spring Awakening and The Band’s Visit: Producing new musicals is a risky business, and even the best among composers, writers, directors, and designers can bring forth a dud like this item.
This Ain’t No Disco opened July 24, 2018, at the Linda Gross Theater and runs through August 12. Tickets and information: atlantictheater.org