The music is great, the dancing is perfect, the lyrics are very funny, the actors are very alive and into it. This Ain't No Disco, the new show by Stephen Trask, Rick Elice and Peter Yanowitz directed by Darko Tresnjak now at the Atlantic Theatre Company, is like a good party cake - evenly baked, sweet, firm, no salt or soda taste, just the right amount of frosting and. . . alas, no surprise filling. But a cake is still a treat.
The set is provocative of 1970’s New York grit, so when the story gets predictable, you can read the sleazy shingles of the old theatre district. The show opens with the entire cast on the stage singing and dancing on two stories of scaffolding built along three sides of the stage over the door to Studio 54 placed upstage center. This is a rock opera. There is very little straight dialogue – the entire story is sung to us. We meet Sammy (Samantha Marie Ware) who has the strongest voice in the room. Ware's voice drips with technique. She could sing the socks off of absolutely anything. Sammy has her own style – punk from Queens – and she is curious about what’s happening inside the club, but does not have the same desperation of the Supplicants who surround her (Krystina Alabado, Cameron Amandus, Tony D’Allelio, Lulu Fall Fall, Hannah Florence, John-Michael Lyles, Krystal Mackie, Trevor McQueen, Nocile Medoro, and Ian Paget). Sammy dresses however she wants including wearing a hat that gets her laughed far away from the velvet rope and back home to her very young son, Charlie (Antonio Watson). I could totally relate to the frustration Sammy feels over being a mother before her life as an artist is fully off the ground. The child has to come before anything else, but it is hard to serve the child and the muse at the same time. I won't leave a spoiler here telling you exactly how Sammy copes, but it is heart-breaking and disturbingly familiar.
One night The Artist (Will Connolly) - clearly an Andy Warhol caricature - declares Sammy to be genuine and interesting opening the doors wide for her, over-ruling Stephen Rubell (Theo Stockman) who has made Sammy's style the butt of jokes to the Supplicants. Let's be clear: Stockman steals this entire show. He is on fire in the character of Rubell. Every movement, every vocalization, every look he gives to those on stage and in the audience is such an utter pleasure. His God-given features are nothing like Rubell, but he is completely Rubell anyway in his obnoxious confidence and filterless communications. I loved his performance one hundred percent because he is doing it with every cell of his body.
Just before Sammy "accidentally" finds her way into the club, she bumps into an old friend from High School, Chad (Peter LaPrade), a queer cutie patootie who works at Studio 54 as a bus boy. Chad recognizes Sammy as someone he idolized when he was a kid. The chemistry between Ware and LaPrade is the magic only found between a fag and his hag. The characters of Chad and Sammy are navigating the world of lies and hard realities looking for a way to make what is beautiful within them into art and grocery money, while leaning on one another for love and encouragement.
Who is lying to them? Binky (Chilina Kennedy) is a talent agent who convinces Chad to change his name to Rake and leads him to believe that he can be a smash hit as a graffiti artist if he just marries her at Studio 54 in a huge publicity stunt. Kennedy is outrageous, loud and love-hatable on the stage slinking in her '70's gaudy costumes by clever Sarah Laux. Her personality is slimy but so flashy that it blinds and drains young naive Chad. Binky negotiates with The Artist to be allowed to single-handedly manipulate Chad. The Artist takes on Sammy as his prodigy and consolation prize. Connolly is smooth like Warhol and his detachment is so completely aggravating that I felt as though I was meeting the real Warhol up close. Soon, The Artist, like the snake of Eden, has Sammy taking prescriptions to keep up with her Factory-made fame using the logic that prescription substances are not "drugs." "I never take drugs," he tells her. These lying influences tear the tether between Chad and Sammy, nearly destroying their friendship.
It's a good story. We relate to it and the characterizations are solid. We also get some side stories: The coat check girls, Meesh and Landa/Landon (Krystina Alabado and Lulu Fall), are in love with one another and struggling with gender identity without a guide book.
Rubell thinks he has a friend in The D.A. (Eddie Cooper) because they are both into sleazily manipulating young boys, but Rubell's tax situation is just too easy to exploit when The D.A. wants to run for mayor on "the issues." But these stories are totally predictable. If the performances were not so tight, the music and lyrics of Trask and Yanowitz not so infectious, we might not be so entertained because we know how this story goes and exactly how it ends. I would have liked to have seen a little twist somewhere, some juicy surprise, some scandalous secret. There was no hidden berry filling in this otherwise perfectly yummy cake.
I predict this show will be a sensation - maybe even on the level of RENT - because the work of this ensemble on the stage is flawless. I just wish the story had been pushed to braver limits.
(Photo by Ben Arons)
What the popular press says...
"Why enjoy a wild night on the town when you can skip straight to the head-pounding hangover? That would appear to be the animating principle behind This Ain't No Disco, the tone-deaf, cliché-clogged rock opera that opened on Tuesday night at the Linda Gross Theater in an Atlantic Theater Company production."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"This Ain’t No Disco is that classic example of a problematic book working mischief on an excellent score. Thankfully, Disco is almost nonstop singing, and Trask and Yanowitz show a true gift for melody, one you’d never guess they possessed from having heard Hedwig. They’re calling their new musical “a rock opera.” I missed the rock, but did hear some very fine ballads, patter songs, bubblegum, rap, and, yes, disco. And much better than fine is their brilliant recitative work."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"Its 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 such shows as Jersey Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher and the upcoming The Cher Show. Despite the impressive pedigree of talent also including director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and 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."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"Strange to say, the repetitive music doesn’t lean into the changing trends, while the choreography just re-works the same old steps for tired feet. This ain’t no disco, to be sure."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...