By Brian Scott Lipton
I’m not entirely sure what I find most confusing about This Ain’t No Disco, the extremely ambitious if hopelessly muddled rock opera now debuting at the Atlantic Theater Company: the show’s title (since much of the action takes place at the now-defunct Studio 54, which was definitely a disco) or its misguided attempt to contextualize the last year of 54 and the simultaneous emergence of the Mudd Club, remind us of the power wielded by the very strange Andy Warhol, and tell the fictional stories of several people, none of which are ultimately all that clear or interesting — all in a mere two-and-half-hours. Too often, the show has as little focus as a broken Instamatic.
Actually, perhaps the most confusing thing about the show given the high level of talent involved — which includes Tony winners Darko Tresjnak (director), Rick Elice (co-librettist) and Stephen Trask (co-composer, lyricist and librettist with Peter Yanowitz) – is the musical’s lack of coherence. That’s not to say these men haven’t done some fine work here; a lot of the score (which ranges from punk to rock to Broadway but is rarely disco-inspired) is very catchy and much of Tresjnak’s staging (aided immeasurably by Camille Brown’s excellent choreography) is kinetic and exciting. But you’ll still spend a lot of time saying “huh?”
Fortunately, the large cast works very hard and often quite persuasively. You may never see a better “impression” of perpetually coked-out 54 owner Steve Rubell than the one presented here by the fabulous Theo Stockman, and a blonde-bewigged Will Connolly’s take on “The Artist” (aka Warhol) is completely spot-on. In fact, their performances and personalities are so large they tend to overshadow almost everything else on stage –even the show’s massive physical production (most notably, Jason Sherwood’s bi-level multimedia-filled set).
The one big exception is the strong-voiced Samantha Marie Ware, who does superbly nuanced work as Sammy, a somewhat troubled waitress and single mother who is “discovered” by Warhol, who then tries to make her a singing superstar, with almost disastrous consequences. Sammy’s plight is decidedly moving (even if her backstory is a bit overloaded) and Ware plumbs whatever depth it has for all it’s worth.
Less successful, though, is Peter LaPrade as our supposed protagonist, Sammy’s former high school acquaintance Chad. Somehow, in a year or so, the openly gay Chad goes from turning tricks to briefly becoming a Rubell protégé of sorts to an art-world fraud (and failure), after which he briefly goes back to turning tricks, then settles into quasi-domesticity with lesbian/transgender couple Mishi (Krystina Alarado) and Landon (Lulu Fall) and finally becomes both the caretaker of Sammy and her young son Charlie (Antonio Watson, adorable). To his credit, LaPrade delivers his lines with conviction, sings beautifully, and bares most of his taut body with abandon, but one suspects he is aware that his storyline is both overstuffed and underwritten.
In somewhat smaller roles, Broadway star Chilina Kennedy (last seen as Carole King in “Beautiful”) seems to be having a blast as Binky, a loud-mouthed, attention-seeking publicist without much in the way of scruples, and Eddie Cooper brings considerable presence to the almost negligible part of the D.A., who eventually proves to be Rubell’s undoing.
In a theatrical world now dominated by jukebox musicals, one hates to rain on the parade of originality. But there can be little doubt that the future of This Ain’t No Disco (barring some substantial rewrites) is unquestionably cloudy.
Photos: Ben Arons
This Ain’t No Disco continues at the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street) through August 12. Call 866-811-4111 or visit atlantictheater.org for tickets and information.