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Is it 15 minutes of fame, or infamy? Because I’m not sure if the Atlantic Theater Company‘s new rock opera, This Ain’t No Disco is going to have a long musical life unless it finds its way back to the core of the drama. With music and lyrics by Stephen Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Peter Yanowitz who also wrote the convoluted book with additional help from Rick Elice (Jersey Boys), the finished project is much like a really messy night out at the disco when too much alcohol and drugs are drank and snorted: disjointed and unfocused with lots of ridiculous drama fired up out of nothing. The high seems fun from inside a druggy brain, but anyone on the outside only sees a disaster wrapped up in a coked-up drunks ramblings, one who thinks they are far sexier and appealing than they actually are presenting. We all know that type, the one we try to avoid when out at night, who’s so twitchy, edgy, and overtly sexual, that at best, we only feel sorry for them as we try to get out of arms reach. It’s a shame, we think, as we can hear the great dance music playing in the background, wishing they could relax and enjoy. We wish we could see the shades of beauty and fun somewhere deep down inside their unfocused eyes, but, at least for that night, what’s standing in front of us just needs a good night’s sleep, before an authentic self could be found.
I know that sounds a bit harsh, and it is, sadly. Mainly this comes from a large amount of disappointment, as I had such high hopes for This Ain’t No Disco, particularly because of the amazing Trask and his musical genius. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of my all time favorite experiences in terms of orchestration and performance in musical theatre, both when it opened off-Broadway at the run-down Jane Street Theatre with John Cameron Mitchell in the lead, and when it opened at the Belasco on Broadway with Neil Patrick Harris. I was so excited for this new rock opera and the ideas swirling around inside the story, but maybe I set the bar too high. There is a core of greatness in there, though, underneath the sticky glitter and the coked up haze. The choreography by Camille A. Brown (Broadway’s Once on This Island) needs to take one big chill pill, as the high camp and excessive motion is exhausting to look at, as is the set by Jason Sherwood (NYTW’s Sojourners and Her Portmanteau) and costumes by Sarah Laux (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit) that scream, “LOOK at me! Aren’t I naughty?!?” The lighting by Ben Stanton (LCT’s Junk), projections by Aaron Rhyme (Broadway’s Anastasia), and sound by Emily Lazar (founder/president/chief mastering engineer of The Lodge) are all doing solid work, worthy of the time and place that is being created, but This Ain’t No Disco in general, is not cool or edgy in the manner that made Studio 54 iconic and memorable. It’s crass and overtly sexual without being sexy in the least, throwing unnecessary simulations of blow jobs and dirty words at is us constantly. The desperation to arouse is disappointing to see as the musical drives forward with such intensity and manic energy within the first few scenes, focusing its drugged-out gaze on all the wrong points of light, that there is little to nowhere to go almost immediately. Gone or forgotten are the moments of introduction that a show needs in order to engage, with casual references tossed forward that don’t quite do the trick authentically.
Musical moments do jump out and hit you hard from time to time, surprising us with their depth of emotion and clarity. Musical director Darius Smith (New Victory’s Three Little Birds) brings a solid sound forward, especially when the two young leads, Peter LaPrade (The Lightning Thief) as Chad, and Samantha Marie Ware (The Lion King) as Sammy, get to do what they both are so good at; singing from the heart and soul. There solos show us the possibility that exists underneath the superficial, but the book and the musical in general as directed with an over-the-top edge by Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) doesn’t want to tell us the stories we really care about. We get lost in the mud of the PR woman from hell, Binky, played hilariously by Chilina Kennedy (Broadway’s Jesus Christ Superstar), the man they call ‘The Artist’, played with an ironically Walholian erectness by Will Connolly (LCT3’s After the Blast), the extremely sweaty mess named Steve Rubell, played with a drug-addicted twitch by Theo Stockman (Broadway’s American Idiot), and the dirtbag D.A. who brought him down, played with a strong voice by Eddie Cooper (Encores’ Assassins), all characters that should be secondary and are not as important as the youthful core. These seasoned actors all do compelling work, but in reality, this isn’t about them, and shouldn’t be about them, but the unfocused book doesn’t seem to know that.
I get the idea, trying to parallel the demise of Studio 54 and all that it stands for with the hopeful dreams of the young artists that fall into the trap created by Rubell and company, but the four stories we care about the most get lost or completely ignored in the muddle of the Mudd Club, Studio 54 nightclub slash art world of 1979 New York City. LaPrade’s Chad/Rack has a glorious voice and angelic face but never really feels like the troubled character he is attempting to sell us. Ware’s Sammy is overly weighed down with far too many hardships for us to take her situation seriously. They both sing superbly but never seem quite real in the erratic world around them. Their two cohorts, Meesh and Landa/Landon, the sculpting coat check team portrayed strongly by the talented Krystina Alabado (Broadway’s American Psycho) and Lulu Fall (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre…), barely have a story line falling underneath their most silly opening song, “Baryshnikov’s Coat”. It’s fun but pointless. Luckily they are given a lovely duet later on, but without an emotional arc or story to tell beyond their rock solid loving relationship, it’s hard to connect. Nothing else about the two is really shared; they struggle as artists, love each other, are there for their friends whole-heartedly, and that’s about it. They become merely hosts that invite their two messed up friends into their loft when things go bad, which is good, but not nearly enough for these two strong performers. It’s sweet, and all four have amazing musical moments that they can stand firmly behind and be proud of, but the road that they all take to get to their happy ending has so many detours that the emotional core is lost somewhere along the “Rake” and “Fake” way. Maybe it was haphazardly left behind in the bathroom of Studio 54 during Rubell’s arresting fall from the spotlight, or maybe it was casually drained away in the editing of Binky’s television show. ‘The Artist’ does get one great number near the end of Act 2, possibly suggesting that this character and actor needs a show all to themselves, and something that might last more than the 15 minutes of fame suggested. But as is, this rock opera, if it wants to last beyond this hot summer, needs a long trip to rehab where a methodical and psychological focused search for the core might be found and brought forth for us to see. Until then, I’m not going to worry or work too hard to get past this red velvet rope before the needed renovation happens inside the once cool Studio 54.