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This Ain’t No Disco

Theatre Review by David Hurst - July 24, 2018

Theo Stockman and Peter LaPrade
Photo by Ben Arons

At least there's truth in advertising with The Atlantic's new musical, This Ain't No Disco; there's definitely no disco music in it. Unfortunately, there's not much else in it either, leaving audiences scratching their heads or scurrying for the exits after watching what can only be described as a hot mess of a musical. Despite the best efforts of an enthusiastic, hard-working cast whose commitment to the material is never in question, This Ain't No Disco is dead on arrival.

For musical theatre fans, much of the interest in Disco came from the fact one of its creators was Stephen Trask, who, together with John Cameron Mitchell, wrote the brilliant Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But lightning rarely strikes twice, making the disappointment in Disco's score even more profound. Trask's co-writer is Peter Yanowitz, the original drummer for The Wallflowers who was also the drummer for Natalie Merchant's first three solo recordings and who made his Broadway debut as Schlatko, the drummer in Hedwig. Together they've fashioned a strange, hybrid score of pop tunes devoid of bite and melodically uninspired. The clunky book for Disco, which Trask and Yanowitz collaborated on with Rick Elice (Jersey Boys and Peter and the Starcatcher), is a tired collection of clichés and wish fulfillment. That its creators have pretentiously subtitled their show "A Rock Opera" says all you need to know about their level of denial in what they've written. Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera. Tommy is a rock opera. Pink Floyd's The Wall is a rock opera. This Ain't No Disco is a sung-through pop musical, and a lousy one at that.

The book for Disco is a tired retread of all the stories previously told about the wild, hedonistic days of New York in the late 70's and early 80's, most notably Mark Christopher's 1998 film 54 which starred Ryan Phillippe as a beautiful, young Adonis trying to find himself, and Mike Myers as the nightclub impresario Steve Rubell. In This Ain't No Disco these roles are filled by Peter LaPrade as Chad, the busboy with a heart of gold, and Theo Stockman's wild-eyed caricature of an unleashed Rubell. Trask, Yanowitz and Elice throw a few more characters into their story, both real and fictional, to flesh out the proceedings: Samantha Marie Ware is Sammy, a self-described punk who's a single-mother with an abusive past trying to become a superstar (of course); Will Connolly as The Artist (a ludicrous stand-in for Andy Warhol, whose name and likeness one assumes this production either couldn't afford or was denied) takes Sammy under his proverbial wing and feeds her pills when she doesn't toe his mercurial line; and Chilina Kennedy as the ambitious, Jewish public relations handler who sees Chad as her ticket to her fifteen minutes of fame. We watch, with detachment and blasé bewilderment, as the fortunes of Chad and Sammy and Binky and Warhol and Rubell rise and fall before Trask, Yanowitz and Elice wrap up their confection with a big bow on top. Who knew moving into a Tribeca loft commune with two lesbian artists could solve drug addiction, self-mutilation, homelessness and prostitution?

Darko Tresnjak, a Tony winner for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, has directed This Ain't No Disco with a feverish desperation that can't hide the fact he's trying to spin straw into gold without much success. Jason Sherwood's grungy, rolling scaffold of a set, Sarah Laux's thread-bare costumes, Ben Stanton's anemic lighting and Aaron Rhyne's tepid projections all conspire with Tresnjak to give the show some hint of glamour or relevancy, but to no avail. Indeed, the scenes where the cast attempts to create a semblance of what it was like to be in Studio 54 at its zenith are laughable. The one dismal element of Disco is the sound, courtesy of Emily Lazar, which is a disaster. One wishes the cast would apply the same energy they give to Camille A. Brown's relentless choreography to the lyrics they're singing. The combination of their lazy enunciation with the bad sound mixing results in much of the show being unintelligible, even when straining to hear what's being said. Do musical theatre schools not teach young people to say the consonants at the ends of their words anymore? Or have performers become so reliant on body microphones to do their work for them they assume they don't have to enunciate? These are questions firmly answered by This Ain't No Disco.

The real question for the Atlantic, however, is why this show was green-lighted for inclusion in their subscription season after two workshops by New York Stage and Film & Vassar at the Powerhouse Theater in the summers of 2015 and 2017. Did no one point out the obvious?

This Ain't No Disco
Through August 12
Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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