When the Atlantic Theater Company announced a new rock opera about Studio 54 and the Mudd Club titled “This Ain’t No Disco,” featuring Stephen Trask on the production team, I was beyond thrilled. Trask, you may recall, was the creative force behind the cult rock sensation “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and the Atlantic was the birthplace of the revolutionary “Spring Awakening,” which went on to a spectacular run on Broadway.
Alas, this ain’t no “Hedwig.” Directed by Darko Tresnjak, the wildly ambitious endeavor suffers from an identity crisis. One moment it lives up to its rock opera billing, the next it’s a dark drama, then a fizzy farce. All sprinkled generously with mind-numbing clichés.
“This Ain’t No Disco,” which credits music, lyrics, and book to Trask and Peter Yanowitz (Rick Elice also contributed to the book), strives to patch together a coherent tapestry of multiple story lines, with little success.
There’s Chad, a sensitive pretty boy kicked out by his dad for being gay. After turning tricks in squalid Times Square flophouses, he lands a highly coveted gig as a busboy at Studio 54. Improbably, with the help of a pushy PR maven named Binky (Chilina Kennedy), he is marketed as a hot graffiti artist in the mold of Keith Haring.
Chad bonds with another misfit named Sammy, a troubled, black single mother who becomes a superstar singer, with a major assist from The Artist, a droll, bewigged character meant to evoke Andy Warhol. We also meet two starry-eyed artists employed as coat check girls at Studio 54, though they appear to do little work. One character abruptly admits they are transgender, yet the revelation is met with a shrug by their friends — and the audience.
Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell (played to the hilt by Theo Stockman) figures prominently here, though his character registers as a clownish cartoon, exposing little more than the predatory, coke-addled, control freak we already know.
In jarring contrast to a vaudeville-esque ditty by Rubell about stashing loads of cash in the ceiling, there’s a plaintive ballad about self-cutting.
Many of the lyrics are obvious and borderline puerile. And it’s hard not to wonder about the anachronisms. Was the term “celebutante” common in 1979?
Not that it’s all bad news. The score is a toe-tapping mix of rock, funk, disco, and new wave, and the throbbing dance numbers, with choreography by Camille A. Brown, often feature shirtless go-go boys gyrating in micro-shorts and tube socks. The hedonistic, polysexual, ethnically and socially diverse ethos of Studio 54 is nicely captured in these sequences, sharply contrasting with the grungy, dour aura of the Mudd Club. Select musical numbers boast stunning solo turns by Sammy (Samantha Marie Ware), Chad (Peter LaPrade), and The Artist (Will Connolly).
Jason Sherwood’s set, dominated by metal scaffolding and punctuated by signs evoking the XXX-rated Times Square of the late 1970’s, is astonishing.
History has shown it’s not easy translating debauched club culture and gritty urban landscapes into potent musical theater. More often than not, the subject matter becomes sanitized, even trivialized. The Broadway musical “Taboo,” about Boy George, fell horribly flat. And remember “Radiant Baby,” the colorful but bland tuner about Keith Haring at the Public Theater years ago? I didn’t think so.
THIS AIN’T NO DISCO | Atlantic Theater Company | Linda Gross Theater | 336 W. 20th St. | Through Aug. 12 | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed, Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $81.50-$101.50 at atlan