"The Coke Side of Life"
Today, Studio 54 is a Broadway theatre, a 1927 venue originally named the Gallo and intended for opera. After a checkered history under many names and show biz purposes, it was converted in 1977, under its current name, into New York’s hottest disco by entrepreneurs Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager.
It was known for its anything-goes decadence, flamboyant clothing, liberated sexuality, coke sniffing, and exclusivity, with a velvet rope line that used all sorts of arbitrary rules as to who it let in and who it left out. That last, of course, increased its desirability among both celebrities and the hoi polloi.
|Set of This Ain't No Disco. Photo: Ben Arons.|
For all its immense success, Rubell and Schrager’s Gomorrah came to a crashing end in 1980 following scandals about their tax evasions and a report concerning an aide to President Jimmy Carter. Other managements kept the place open through 1986 and Rubell died in 1989 from AIDS.
Key parts of that history course through the combination of facts and fiction making up This Ain’t No Disco, a disappointing rock musical at the Atlantic, its title drawn from a lyric in the Talking Heads song, “Life during Wartime.” Frenziedly directed by Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), it offers nearly sung-through disco and new wave music (little of it sounding like what it’s a pastiche of) and sometimes indistinguishable lyrics by Stephen Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Peter Yanowitz (drummer for the Wallflowers). The cluttered, emotionally uninvolving book, its musically supported dialogue written in rhyme, is by Trask, Yanowitz, and Rick Elice (Peter and the Starcatcher).
|Cameron Amandus, Nicole Medoro, John-Michael Lyles, Krystal Mackie (center), Tony D'Alelio, Hannah Florence, Ian Paget. Photo: Ben Arons.|
Performed on an all-purpose arrangement of movable scaffolding (designed by Jason Sherwood), with multiple, TV-sized projections (designed by Aaron Rhyne) covering even the ceiling overhead with ads for peep shows, nude revues, and the like, the show attempts to embody the aspirations, debauchery, and eccentricity of those populating the late 70s club scene. Abetted by Ben Stanton’s rock concert-style lighting, it contrasts the upscale flash of Studio 54 with the even more transgressive scene on White Street in Tribeca, where Steve Mass opened the funkier Mudd Club (1978-1983), which had its own exclusivity rules (no celebrities was one) designed to increase interest.
|Samantha Marie Ware, Peter LaPrade. Photo: Ben Arons.|
The characters oddly mix actual people and those who seem composites of typical club hounds. The former include Rubell himself (Schrager doesn’t appear), played by Theo Stockman as obnoxious and sleazy, with an exaggerated nasal whine and Brooklyn accent, and a fey gayness unlike anything the closeted Rubell publicly exhibited.
|Theo Stockman, Peter LaPrade. Photo: Ben Arons.|
Chief among the latter is a young, gay, graffiti artist named Chad (Peter LaPrade), who gets by as male hustler cum busboy at Studio 54. He’s paired with a talented black punk poet/singer, in a presumably Patti Smith-like mold (but actually more R&B), named Sammy (Samantha Marie Ware), single mother of five-year-old Charlie (Antonio Watson). Both LaPrade and Watson make the most of their stereotypical roles as poor, suffering artists placed in stereotypical situations.
|Samantha Marie Ware. Photo: Ben Arons.|
The friendship and travails of Chad and Sammy, reunited after knowing each other at high school in Forest Hills, comprise the plot’s central action. Chad falls into the coarsely colorful clutches of ambitious underground publicist Binky (Chilina Kennedy, the show’s standout), a bit reminiscent of Nikki Haskell, who, after giving him the name “Rake,” helps him to his 15 minutes of fame. Meanwhile, Sammy’s rise to club stardom comes burdened with the hard-luck consequences of substance abuse.
|Chilina Kennedy. Photo: Ben Arons.|
Other supporting characters include a dead ringer (well, maybe with a less cheesy wig) for Andy Warhol, identified only as the Artist, and played by Will Connolly as zombie-like and gently controlling, with the original’s Factory now called the Warehouse. For some reason, the Artist gets the eleven o’clock number, “One Night, Terpsichore,” an autobiographical lament about his failure to follow his dream and become a dancer. Its rather banal chorus goes:
LIFE IS SUFFERING AND PAIN
AND WE'LL LIVE IT AGAIN AND AGAIN
UNTIL WE UNDERSTAND
LIFE IS SUFFERING AND PAIN
|Krystina Alabado, Lulu Fall. Photo: Ben Arons.|
Mass (Trevor McQueen), who is mainly a passing presence, is presented more or less straightforwardly while the D.A. who goes after Rubell is not Robert Morgenthau, however, but the fictional Lamont Brown (Eddie Cooper), a corrupt, politically ambitious, supersized African American with same-sex issues of his own. And two lesbian artists, Meesh (Krystina Abado) and Landa (Lulu Fall), who transitions to Landon, also have significant stage time as dependable friends for Chad and Sammy.
|Eddie Cooper. Photo: Ben Arons.|
As background, an ensemble, often wearing Sarah Laux’s creative reimagining of the period’s wilder concoctions, many designed to show off rippling male torsos, dance and sing energetically to Camille A. Brown’s (Once on this Island) choreography.
|Will Connolly. Photo: Ben Arons.|
Over the course of its two and a half hours, much of the material, such as the rivalry between the uptown and downtown disco scene. With so much of these clubs’ history easily available in both print and memory (for some of us it wasn’t that long ago), the reasons for its distracting blend of real and fictional personages are vague.
|Company of This Ain't No Disco. Photo: Ben Arons.|
And, instead of the rather mundane and predicable stories it tells of suffering artists, why not a book that accurately reflects the far more compelling drama of what really happened to Rubell and company during those high-flying, nose-powder days?
Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through August 12