Review: Off-Broadway Musical ‘This Ain’t No Disco’ Ain’t No Good
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, August 2, 2018
Why do bad musicals happen to good theater companies? That’s a question that I find myself asking quite a bit in the summer, when Manhattan’s numerous nonprofit theaters often trot out their latest musicals in development, hoping they’ve stumbled onto a future cash cow, like Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, or even Avenue Q.
Parenthetically, nonprofits often receive a stake in future commercial productions of shows they help develop, so Hamilton is not only lining the pockets of its creators, it’s also filling the coffers of the Public Theater. Similar arrangements are likely benefitting the Second Stage Theater, which presented the Off-Broadway tryout of Dear Evan Hansen, and the Vineyard Theatre, which hosted Avenue Q.
Of course, the nonprofits are often taking chances based on the idea of a musical rather than a finished product. And the idea for a particular show may sound noble in theory, but ideas don’t make great musicals. Execution does.
Numerous recent Off-Broadway musicals have been based on very noble subjects, only to lose a considerable amount in the development process. Such efforts include Southern Comfort at the Public (about a supportive cohort of transgender people in the southern U.S.), Invisible Thread at the Second Stage (about one couple’s effort to rescue African orphans), and Kid Victory at the Vineyard (about a young man kidnapped and kept for a year as a sex slave). All had honorable intentions, all fell considerably short of the mark.
That said, it’s hard to imagine what the folks at the Atlantic Theater Company were thinking when they chose the crass, shallow, and uninvolving new musical This Ain’t No Disco as part of their current season. Likely, they were swayed by the names of the creators involved: Stephen Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Rick Elice (Jersey Boys), and Peter Yanowitz, the original drummer with the band The Wallflowers.
Unlike the shows listed above, This Ain’t No Disco isn’t inherently noble in its conception, as it merely attempts to revisit the 1970s glory days of Studio 54. That’s not to say that the creators couldn’t have found depth, pathos, and meaning in their subject matter. They just didn’t. Other musicals and movies have tried to capture the hedonistic heyday of Studio 54, without much success. There was the legendarily awful 1998 feature film 54, starring Ryan Philippe and Mike Myers, and an obscure stage musical that never made it out of Florida called Fifty Four Forever.
This Ain’t No Disco clearly wants to be both edgy and sentimental, but it earns neither distinction. The characters are two-dimensional, and the drama is often manufactured. The two main characters are Chad, a young gay man who works at the club as a bar back, and Sammy, a young black female artist who is both attracted to and repelled by Studio 54 for reasons we never really discover.
The show tries to wrench some pathos out of Sammy’s backstory as a survivor of sexual assault and a single mother, but the efforts are unconvincing. That’s certainly no reflection on the performer here, the sensational Samantha Marie Ware, who tries valiantly to make Sammy a real person, without much help from the creators. Likewise, and endearing Peter Laprade does what he can to make Chad sympathetic and real, but the ridiculous and unmotivated plot complications that the libretto (credited to Trask, Yanowitz, and Elice) puts him through strain credulity to the breaking point.
Also wasted is the amazing Chilina Kennedy, a laugh riot in the underwritten role of Binky, a PR guru, who grows comically more grotesque as the story progresses. Will Connolly exercises admirable restraint as a character called The Artist, who is clearly based on Andy Warhol. Connolly gets what is really the only decent song in the show, “One Night, Terpsichore,” an 11 o’clock number giving some back story on the “Artist” character. It’s the only song in the score (Trask and Yanowitz collaborated on both words and music) that doesn’t feel perfunctory, the only one with a sense of inspiration and poesy to it.
Tony-winning director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) and choreographer Camille A. Brown (simply robbed of a Tony nomination for her joyously idiomatic dance for the current revival of Once on This Island) give the show a slick, efficient presentation, but there’s only so much they can do with this limp material.
A few seasons back, the Atlantic Theater Company presented the world-premiere production of The Band’s Visit, which went on to win 10 Tony Awards this past season. Ten years back, they also helped incubate Spring Awakening, which likewise went on to great, award-winning acclaim. It seems rather unlikely that This Ain’t No Disco will follow in the footsteps of those far superior shows.
This Ain’t No Disco presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, through August 12, 2018. Book by Stephen Trask, Peter Yanowitz, and Rick Elice; music & lyrics by Stephen Trask and Peter Yanowitz. Directed by Darko Tresnjak; choreography by Camille A. Brown; scenic design by Jason Sherwood; costume design by Sarah Laux; lighting design by Ben Stanton; sound design by Emily Lazar; projection design by Aaron Rhyne; musical direction by Darius Smith.
Cast: Krystina Alabado, Cameron Amandus, Will Connolly, Eddie Cooper, Tony d’Alelio, Lulu Fall, Hannah Florence, Chilina Kennedy, Peter LaPrade, John-Michael Lyles, Krystal Mackie, Trevor McQueen, Nicole Medoro, Ian Paget, Theo Stockman, Samantha Marie Ware, and Antonio Watson.
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Cover: (l. to r.) Cameron Amandus, Nicole Medoro, John-Michael Lyles, Krystal Mackie (center), Tony D’Alelio, Hannah Florence, and Ian Paget in ‘This Ain’t No Disco;’ photo: Ben Arons.