Updating “La Boheme” to the downtown ’90s may have worked for “Rent,” but resetting “La Traviata” in Manhattan’s disco ’70s most definitely does not for “Kept.” This generally flat and flavorless new musical from the creators of middling “Side Show” and charming “Everything’s Ducky” renders hedonism dull — though not as dull as the maudlin romantic tragedy that runs its predictable course in act two. Lead recasting, book rewrites and a sharper physical staging than Scott Schwartz’s TheatreWorks premiere prod would improve matters, but this uninspired tuner will need ground-up retooling if it’s to be a keeper.
The troubles go as deep as show’s faulty basic concept: Sticking Dumas’ kept-woman “Lady of the Camellias” in Studio 54 sounds fair enough, exchanging one era’s decadence for another. Yet unlike that heroine’s original milieu, ’70s lifestyle excesses weren’t hidden away from a shocked bourgeois majority — the walls of propriety had already tumbled down. Ergo, this transplant grows increasingly ludicrous as archaic concepts of noble “sacrifice” and such arrive on cue as plot devices. If there’s one thing the decade was not about, it’s guilt.
“Kept” doesn’t get the giddily indulgent aspects right, either. If it had managed a mix of affectionate nostalgia and satire, a la “Tales of the City,” or a hallucinogenic, self-destructive dolce-vita view in the mode of “All That Jazz,” the period transplant might have worked. But “Kept” instead recalls another misjudged boogie-wonderland flashback: Like Whit Stillman’s film “The Last Days of Disco,” it plunks us down in the famously fabu environs of 54, then focuses on the most boring people on the dance floor.
Led past Studio 54’s “Velvet Rope” (an underwhelming opening) to nirvana inside by his gay flatmate Blake (Barrett Foa), aspiring doctor Ian (Will Swenson) promptly locks eyes with pouty party princess Caleigh (Christiane Noll). Having spatted with billionaire patron Marshall (Dennis Parlato), she passes out from substance overkill, enabling poor-but-hunky Mr. Right to carry her home.
He’s left mysteriously smitten with this “legendary beauty,” though neither that quality nor any other above-average ones come through in the weak character dialogue or Noll’s uncharismatic perf. Seeking her out, Ian pitches earnest woo, at last overcoming Caleigh’s cynicism and greed. The duo repair to a Hamptons beach house for clean-living bliss. But their money soon runs out, Ian’s mom (Karen Murphy) begs Caleigh to “sacrifice” — her son must finish med school! — and heroine returns to her prior booty-shaking, coke-snorting ways. This triggers fatal collapse from an as-yet-unnamed (in 1980) ailment we’re meant to assume is AIDS.
Stephen Chbosky and Bill Russell’s book tries to evoke the superficial-but-so-what fabulousness of the 54 scene via a Greek chorus-line of pansexual “glitterati,” with good-natured boytoy Blake and bitchier Grace Jones look-alike Brigitte (Brenda Braxton) designated as the principal hangers-on. Yet there’s precious little sense of infectious fun in this backdrop — partly because Henry Krieger’s routine music seldom even tries to feel the funk, instead mostly inhabiting a generic ’90s showtune no-man’s-land of perfunctory ballads, vaguely retro novelty tunes (“Why Are the Wrong People Rich?,” “Why Don’t We Stay in Bed?”) and strained big-emotion solo numbers. Nor do Russell’s lyrics often hit the desired targets of genuine wit or uncliched sentiment.
Caleigh is meant to be a doomed dazzler, but as penned she’s just a snippy, rotely sarcastic party doll, while Ian is Wonder Bread itself. Noll and Swenson have no chemistry together; separately each lacks the magnetism or vocal chops that might have filled in the script’s blankness.
Supporting thesps fare little better. Braxton has presence, as well as the strongest pipes here, but her finally unsympathetic part makes too little use of either. Parlato and Murphy’s characters are groan-inducing wet blankets.
Andy Blankenbuehler’s blah choreography similarly recedes into the overall fog, not even bothering to quote ’70s disco dance styles enough so you’d notice. Sets by Robert Brill are movable screens and pieces that provide too little gaudy color against a black-box background. Beaver Bauer’s retro costumes are apt enough, but she’s held back from full-on excess by show’s insistence on earnest dramatics.