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'This Ain't No Disco' review: All that glitters is not gold

Samantha Marie Ware plays a tough-on-the-outside punk singer

Samantha Marie Ware plays a tough-on-the-outside punk singer in "This Ain't No Disco." Photo Credit: Ben Arons

WHAT "This Ain't No Disco"

WHEN | WHERE Through Aug. 12, Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St.

INFO Tickets from $81.50, atlantictheater.org, 866-811-4111

BOTTOM LINE Frenetic rock opera looks back at the waning days of Studio 54.

If the show's called “This Ain’t No Disco,” what’s with that glitter ball sitting center stage in a spotlight?

The frenetic, floundering rock opera by Stephen Trask (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and Peter Yanowitz getting its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater takes its title from a 1979 Talking Heads song. But, in fact, it is all about a disco, specifically Studio 54, and to a lesser extent, the sleazier downtown nightspot the Mudd Club.

Set in the waning days of Studio 54, the show’s primary plot line follows the unlikely friendship between Chad, one of the club’s gay busboys, and Sammy, a punk singer and single mom we meet as she’s denied entrance by Steve Rubell (Theo Stockman, flamboyantly decadent as the notorious club owner.)  But it’s also about the scene, as much is made of Rubell’s penchant for guarding the gates to his playground. “Let us in, let us in,” sing those hoping for the velvet rope to drop, in the manner of supplicants praying to a higher power (which is clearly how Rubell thought of himself).

Darko Tresnjak directs a determined cast, led by Peter LaPrade, who plays Chad with a mix of daring and vulnerability, and vocal powerhouse Samantha Marie Ware, whose troubled Sammy hides her hurt under a tough veneer. Chilina Kennedy makes quite the jump from playing Carole King in “Beautiful,” as the pushy publicist Binky with enough attitude to launch a thousand careers. And Will Connolly has just the right degree of insouciance as a character known only as The Artist, but who can be none other than one of Studio’s most recognizable habitues, Andy Warhol.

At two and a half hours, "Disco" makes your head spin faster than that aforementioned glitter ball, packing in so much it's impossible to maintain focus. There's another love story between two sweet coat check girls, the hedonistic antics of a slightly seedy district attorney and the playing out of Rubell's comedown, as he's arrested for tax evasion (his oft repeated mantra, "cash in, cash out, and skim") that ultimately brings the club down. 

Sarah Laux's over-the-top disco era costumes (oy, those padded shoulders) make for a blast-from-the-past fashion parade, and you have to marvel at the cast's ability to manage Jason Sherwood's towering three-story set.  As for the music, you'll be disappointed if you're hoping for disco — more like punk rock, with some country-sounding ballads thrown in. A good show may be lurking here, but right now it's all too frantic and disjointed — not so different, if you think about it, from what went on at Studio 54.   

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