For all its high-energy hedonism featuring handsome half-clad bodies, “This Ain’t No Disco,” the rock opera at the Atlantic Theater set in the New York City club scene of the 1970s, doesn’t elicit desire or delight or nostalgia so much as it does confusion.
The confusion starts with the title, which is a line taken from a 1979 Talking Heads song entitled “Life During Wartime,” about a post-apocalyptic landscape, that includes the verse:
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
This ain’t no fooling around
This ain’t no Mudd Club, or C. B. G. B.,
I ain’t got time for that now
But “This Ain’t No Disco” mostly takes place in a disco, the notorious Studio 54, and one of its characters is named Steve Rubell, after the actual co-owner of Studio 54 (portrayed as a fun-loving, coke-snorting sleaze by Theo Stockman.) A few scenes are set in the downtown Mudd Club, where the Mudd Clubbers sing “we party all night long.”So life for the characters in this sing-through musical IS a disco; it IS a party; they DO fool around; and that’s what they mostly spend their time doing – even while they dream of stardom.
It’s also confusing that “This Ain’t No Disco” doesn’t look or sound much like the 70s Studio 54 scene: Jason Sherwood’s set resembles a mash up between “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Deuce” (the HBO series about the porno trade) more than the Bianca-on-a-white-horse heyday. The score by Stephen Trask and Peter Yanowitz is hard-charging and often melodic, but it isn’t convincing as disco music, if that’s what it’s supposed to be. (For a reality check, there’s “Summer” on Broadway, featuring the kind of disco hits that denizens of Studio 54 would be dancing to in 1979) This probably shouldn’t surprise anybody, since it’s curious that anything about that celebrity discotheque would even interest “This Ain’t No Disco” co-writer Trask, who is best known for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
While that punk rock musical, which eventually became a hit on Broadway, subverted the standard A Star is Born story, “This Ain’t No Disco” gives us a couple of clichéd versions of it (which are, initially, difficult to sort out.)
Peter Laprade portrays Chad, whom we meet as a shirtless Studio 54 busboy, wearing only tiny shorts and Converse high tops. His father kicked him out when Chad came out; he was a hustler for a while, before he met Steve Rubell, who hired him. A pushy publicist named Binky (Chilina Kennedy, late of “Beautiful”) sees him at the club and makes it her mission to turn him into a star artist, with disastrous results.
Meanwhile, Samantha Marie Ware portrays Sammy, a 22 year old black punk/poet from Queens, who was raped as a teenager by her stepfather, and is raising a five-year-old, Charlie (Antonio Watson) on her own. A character known only as The Artist (Will Connolly), an obvious stand-in for Andy Warhol, likes the hat Sammy is wearingoutside the club, and decides to become her mentor and make her into a star singer, with temporarily disastrous results.
Sammy and Chad run into one another and realize, they went to high school together! They become fast friends.
Finally Landa and Meesh (Lulu Fall and Krystina Alabado) are a lesbian couple who work in the coat room at Studio 54 Landa at one point tells Meesh “Can you call me Landon from now on? I think I’m a guy.” Meesh says sure. They both aspire to be star sculptors, but without disastrous results. Indeed, they serve as a rock for their friends Chad and Sammy.
Our four Everyman/woman protagonists learn what really matters in life (although one does become a “superstar”) as the Studio 54 era comes to an end.
All these performers are clearly talented – although the ones playing the caricatures (Rubell, Warhol, Binky) are more fun than the earnest strivers with whom we’re supposed to identify.
Co-writer Yanowitz portrayed the drummer in Hedwig, and was the original drummer of the band The Wallflowers. Their collaborator on the book, Rick Elice, wrote the book for “Jersey Boys” and for “The Cher Show,” which is set to open on Broadway in December. The show’s director ,Darko Trenjak, won the Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. That such experienced gentlemen would take on Studio 54, which has been the subject of several books and a flop 20-year-old movie starring Ryan Philippe, might be the most confusing aspect of all.
This Ain’t No Disco
Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and Peter Yanowitz; Book by Stephen Trask, Peter Yanowitz and Rick Elice; Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Set design by Jason Sherwood, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Emily Lazar, projection design by Aaron Rhyne
Cast: Krystina Alabado, Will Connolly, Eddie Cooper, Tony D’Alelio, Lulu Fall, Hannah Florence, Antwayn Hopper, Chilina Kennedy, Peter LaPrade, John-Michael Lyles, Krystal Mackie, Trevor McQueen, Nicole Medoro, Ian Paget, Theo Stockman, Samantha Marie Ware and Antonio Watson
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one “brief” intermission
“This Ain’t No Disco” is scheduled to turn through August 12, 2018.