The characters ingest plenty of drugs onstage, but you won’t get much of a contact high from the new musical set in the glory days of such New York City nightclub landmarks as Studio 54 and Mudd Club. Much effort has gone into this ambitious rock opera, written by Stephen Trask of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame, musician Peter Yanowitz of the bands The Wallflowers and Morningwood, and Rick Elice, author of Jersey Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher and the upcoming The Cher Show. Despite the impressive pedigree of talent — which also includes director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder) and choreographer Camille A. Brown (Once on This Island), This Ain’t No Disco seriously flounders in its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater.
The show’s main problem is its diffuse, unfocused book. Overstuffed with characters and subplots that we never come to care about, the musical feels much longer than it actually is.
The main storyline revolves around Chad (Peter LaPrade), a young, gay aspiring artist from Queens who works as a scantily clad busboy at Studio 54; and Sammy (Samantha Marie Ware), Chad’s former high school classmate, now a single mother of a 5-year-old boy (Antonio Watson) and pursuing a singing career. Both eventually attain their goals to one degree or another, but at great personal cost.
Among the other characters figuring prominently in the overly convoluted proceedings are the real-life Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell (Theo Stockman); “The Artist” (Will Connolly), clearly meant to suggest Andy Warhol; a politically ambitious D.A. (Trevor McQueen); Binky (Chilina Kennedy), a hustling agent determined to make Chad, whom she renames “Rake,” the hot new graffiti artist; Meesh (Krystina Alabado), an aspiring sculptor; and Landa (Lulu Fall), her artistic collaborator and lover who’s dealing with sexual identity issues.
Despite its distinct Rent-like vibe, the musical doesn’t even manage to provide a flavorful depiction of its exotic milieu, with little about the evening ringing true save for the buffed-up male dancers clad in skimpy gym shorts. In certain aspects, Sammy seems vaguely reminiscent of Madonna, but the character’s chief distinguishing characteristic is wearing a jaunty hat. Chad/Rake proves bland in either identity, the female couple barely make an impression, and the Rubell, Artist and Binky figures lean heavily toward caricature.
The lead performers mainly struggle with their poorly defined characters, although Ware is a vocal powerhouse as the singer whose rise to stardom results in, you guessed it, drug dependency; and Stockman entertainingly emphasizes the sleaziness of the coke-snorting Rubell.
There’s plenty of frenetic activity on the set dominated by metal scaffolding, movable platforms and Illuminated signs, but Tresnjak’s staging and Brown’s choreography prove more busy than exciting. Strangely, the score doesn’t emulate the disco, New Wave or punk sounds that defined the era in which the show is set, instead trafficking in a generic pop/rock style. There are a handful of terrific numbers, including solo showstoppers delivered by Ware and Connolly, but most of the songs are unmemorable, paling in comparison to Trask’s work on Hedwig.
The lyrics are sometimes jaw-dropping, but not in a good way, as evidenced by “I’m Not Done Yet,” a sort of ribald variation of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” delivered by Binky: “New York City didn’t drop dead/Son of Sam, you can give me head/I’m not done yet/ I’m not done yet,” she sings defiantly. The music is performed by a seven-piece band (including Trask on synthesizers and Yanowitz on drums) perched high above the stage.
Despite the creators’ obvious high hopes for this ambitious production, This Ain’t No Disco lacks the right moves to give it future life.
Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Krystina Alabado, Cameron Amandus, Will Connolly, Eddie Cooper, Tony d’Alelio, Lulu Fall, Hannah Florence, Chilina Kennedy, Peter LaPrade, John-Michael Lyles, Krystal Mackie, Trevor McQueen, Nicole Medoro, Ian Paget, Theo Stockman, Samantha Marie Ware, Antonio Watson
Music & lyrics: Stephen Trask, Peter Yanowitz
Book: Stephen Trask, Peter Yanowitz, Rick Elice
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Choreographer: Camille A. Brown
Set designer: Jason Sherwood
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Emily Lazar
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.