BY TRONE DOWD
“Disco Queen,” the latest play by southeast Queens author and choreographer Courtney Ffrench and the Vissi Dance Theatre that is set to premiere this week at the York College Performing Arts Center, should be a blast from the past for some audiences.
The production is a loose and retro adaptation of the classic 1956 British play “My Fair Lady.” The story follows a young woman named Lizzy, a “down- and-out street vendor,” vying for the coveted title of “Disco Queen” at the legendary Studio 54, fighting for love, battling opposition and discovering herself in New York in the 1970s.
Ffrench spoke with the Queens Tribune about the production and some of the elements that helped bring this musical period piece to life.
“Lizzy, a street vendor hovering around Studio 54, has this angst, this inclination to join high society in some way, shape or form,” Ffrench said. “She learns how to perform and dance well throughout the show. Essentially, it’s about moving from one station of life to the next and pursuing dreams, overcoming whatever obstacles there might be in achieving that.”
Ffrench originally came up with the idea for the show in 2013. While working in Japan, Ffrench said that he was inspired by the growing popularity of the 1970s dance scene among that nation’s people. Wanting to create a show that could tell a story wrapped in the aesthetic of the time, “Disco Queen” began to take shape. In 2016, the show premiered in Shizuoka City, Japan, where it was well received.
“The run was really successful,” Ffrench said.
Ffrench said that he drew influences from a number of source materials, but was mainly driven by his own admiration of that time period and how it has influenced pop culture today. He said that, like Japan, the long-defunct disco genre is making a bit of a comeback and he is excited to bring that vibe to southeast Queens.
“Right now, there’s a resurgence in people learning how to ‘hustle,’” he explained, talking about the popular partner dance of the 1970s. “Ballroom dancing is coming back big time. These things have been on the radar over the last five years, whether it’s the old hustle or the new-style hustle. There’s an underground swell for these old dances and everything disco.”
Ffrench said that he also drew inspiration from the 1978 film “Thank God It’s Friday,” which stars a young Jeff Goldblum and Debra Winger and features performances from disco mainstays The Commodores and Donna Summer. Following in the footsteps of that film, “Disco Queen” has a soundtrack tailor made to invoke the time period it is portraying. But in order to do so, he had to look into the history of the once-booming disco scene.
Some of the hits that have made it into the track list for “Disco Queen” include Sharon Redd’s hit “Beat the Street” from 1982 and Musique’s “Push, Push in the Bush” from 1978. Ffrench said that “Disco Queen” features many of the disco anthems that were popular during the height of the genre from 1972 to 1982.
“A lot of the songs that we used are 120 beats per minute, so they are very fast,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy to this music. That is something that is so beloved about this music.”
One aspect of the show of which Ffrench said he was especially proud during its run in Japan was the interactivity. In fact, Ffrench attributed some of the success of “Disco Queen” to audience engagement.
Ffrench said that he was excited to see the production come to his hometown. It is set to premiere on March 18 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children.