Outside the imposing front doors to the fabled Studio 54, the wannabes gather. Desperate to be deemed worthy of admission, they wait, hoping the impresario Steve Rubell will pluck them from the crowd. In Stephen Trask and Peter Yanowitz’s chaotic new rock opera, This Ain’t No Disco, the year is 1979, and the would-be clubgoers behind the velvet rope are so young — so eager to make the cut — that they could be dancers auditioning in A Chorus Line.
Yet they’re us, too, aren’t they? Just like them, we’ve arrived wanting to be let inside that famous, coke-fueled hotspot for the glitterati, so we can see at last what all the fuss was about. Or see it vividly imagined, anyway, in a world-premiere production by Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. And yet, for all the visual richness of Tresnjak’s staging — glamorously saturated lighting by Ben Stanton; dead-on period outfits by Sarah Laux; an industrial scaffolding set by Jason Sherwood; plentiful projections, by Aaron Rhyne, of a tawdrier New York — it very rarely sounds like the Seventies. To write a rock musical about a disco palace is a little odd to begin with, but it’s stranger still to make a show that doesn’t aurally transport its audience to the era it means to evoke.
Trask, the composer-lyricist of the indie-rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Yanowitz, the original drummer for the Wallflowers, have devised a handful of lovely pop songs. But the score overall doesn’t feel like it emanates from a particular aesthetic, other than traditional musical theater. There are no tunes powerful enough to lodge in the brain — let alone to override “Life During Wartime,” the Talking Heads number, also from 1979, that may start playing in your mind whenever you hear the show’s title: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. This ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB. I ain’t got time for that now.”
Both bursting at the seams and insufficiently fleshed-out, This Ain’t No Disco has time for too much and not enough in its two and a half hours. The show’s book (by Trask, Yanowitz, and Rick Elice, author of the play Peter and the Starcatcher) is a tangle of plot lines peopled with thinly drawn characters and strewn with references to boldface-name denizens of the club. At the center of it, sort of, are Chad (Peter LaPrade), a twenty-year-old sometime-hustler aiming haphazardly at art stardom, and the charismatic Sammy (Samantha Marie Ware), who was two years ahead of him at their high school in Queens. Her dream is to break into the music biz, but how to do that while raising her five-year-old, Charlie (Antonio Watson, beautifully directed), solo?
She gets some help when a jaded character known as the Artist (Will Connolly) takes an interest in her. Meant to be Warhol-esque, he has nothing of Andy Warhol’s peculiar magnetism and is a tepid presence until his big number, which comes much too late. The Artist is a fixture at Studio 54, where Rubell (Theo Stockman, in caustic lounge-lizard mode) is busy hitting on the busboys. (Ian Schrager, Rubell’s partner in the club, is apparently away in Mallorca.) Chad is one of those busboys for a while, donning a shirtless uniform that could read as sexy only back in the day: teeny gym shorts with sneakers and tube socks.
Also in the mix: Chad’s sculptor friends, Meesh (Krystina Alabado) and Landa (Lulu Fall), who work the club’s coat check and experience not even a slight hiccup as a couple after Landa announces a new name, Landon, and a new gender identity. Then there’s the D.A. (Eddie Cooper, a scene-stealer whenever he opens his mouth to sing), plotting Rubell’s downfall. Oh, and a grasping publicist named Binky (Chilina Kennedy), who thinks nothing of being the bride in a sham marriage — to Chad, who is gay and by then has changed his name to Rake — if it will get her some ink.
It’s a lot, and it’s hard to feel invested in any of it. The sordid and the heartfelt and the hollow coexist in a mostly joy-free, dysfunctional landscape, and then the show abruptly arrives at a sunny ending. If it adds up to anything, it’s a jumbled examination of greed and ambition and voracity for fame. But the glitter here is all just dust.