Despite its potential, SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL not only takes the jukebox musical backwards but also renders as uninteresting as possible the life of the Queen of Disco, who plays a larger role in American pop culture than this show is willing to take on. And a trio of immensely talented women, who play Summer at different stages of her life each with astounding vocal power and authority, cannot compensate for a dismal book, credited to a committee of Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, who also directs. Pity because it was McAnuff who directed the Tony and Olivier- award winning JERSEY BOYS which evolved the jukebox musical into a serious realm of musical theatre.
Diva Donna, the oldest, narrates, more or less chronologically, with some time-shifting, her own tale. Born LaDonna Gaines, in an African Adventist Episcopal- observant Boston household ruled by an authoritarian, unloving father, the stage is set for a life of men-trouble. From a soloist debut with the church choir, where we later learn she was abused by the minister, LaDonna escapes high school classes to audition in Manhattan where she gets cast in a German production of HAIR. Life in Munich brings a German husband, last name Sommer (later misspelled on her first album so she stuck with it), and modest success until she records “Love to Love You Baby” for Italian pop-recording impresario Giorgio Moroder. American promoters move the record into the gay disco scene exploding in the big cities. Summer protests feebly she doesn’t want to be packaged as the disco queen but success rushes in and the rest is history. Or the history at least in SUMMER is how Donna got taken advantage of by the industry and men in general, until she meets her last husband Bruce Sudano, settles down, raises her family and taps the positive shoots of her Christian roots. She succumbs to cancer. Her most important legacy is loyal daughters. Diva takes back seat to mother, and gay diva (redundant I admit) is the phenomena that almost dare not speak its name.
With slick stagecraft, McAnuff grafts into the book 23 musical numbers recorded (and in many cases co-written) by Summer, most of which are her instantly recognizable Billboard hits, but it’s as if her pop songs had nothing to do with the exploding gay culture from which they emerged. If ever there was a musical that naturally called for a male ensemble (ok, as a gay man, I can say it), indeed a gay male ensemble, it is SUMMER but the chorus is female.
And instead of looking at SUMMER in the context of how Summer’s disco propelled gay culture into the mainstream - as DREAMGIRLS dramatized how Diana Ross and The Supremes were the symbiotic vehicle for Black music being appropriated by mainstream pop - McAnuff et al serve up a parable of women’s empowerment sub-themed with spiritual redemption from objectification and commercialization (which the musical itself celebrates). How did a nice Christian girl from Boston (not one of the “Bad Girls” she celebrated in song) unwittingly become an international gay icon? Had no one involved in this production ANY sense of irony?
The show hooks us early with “I Feel Love” and Summer’s breakout “Love to Love You Baby”. SUMMER’s musical direction and orchestration cleverly evoke, even with necessary over-amplification (after all, it IS disco), the sound of Summer’s music from Walkman, or disco floor, or Top 40 station, as one heard it for the very first time - that euphoric, MOOG-synthesized, hook-filled mix of pelvic-centric percussion, swooping strings, punctuating big brass, and primitive electronica. Summer’s voice was a perfect match, the deep-throated alto, part sweet, part fury, both faithful to and rebel of - like all the great African American pop music divas - the church choir.
Indeed, it’s the voices of the three Donnas - Storm Lever (Duckling Donna), Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna) and LaChanze (Diva Donna) - that are the stars of the show. The young, Broadway newcomer Ms Lever commands respect early with “On My Honor” a soulful ballad that establishes how bad meets good in this telling of her life. Ms DeBose (who has an amazing high-kick when pulled into the dance ensemble) gets the show into high drive about midway with “She Works Hard for the Money”. Each gets diva turns at showing off incredible vocal range, especially Ms DeBose and LaChanze with a stirring gospel-themed “I Believe in Jesus.” LaChanze (Tony Award for THE COLOR PURPLE in 2006), though, out-divas both with “Unconditional Love”, where the late-life private Donna reconciles her family past with her daughters. LaChanze earns special acting kudos, too, for pulling off the self-serving apology Summer made for disparaging, homophobic remarks: somehow LaChanze manages to sustain Summer as a sympathetic character.
The choreography by Sergio Trujillo (JERSEY BOYS, again) breaks into period disco moves on occasion but largely defaults to generic Broadway pop dance, more akin to a very hip holiday cruise show. The set, an open, rather chilly and sterile white backdrop that accommodates digital projections which shifts constantly with set pieces for scene changes, sees as much movement as there are songs.
At the end of an imtermissionless hour and forty-five minutes, comes the double punch of Summer’s two biggest disco hits for finale and curtain call, “Hot Stuff” and (surprise!) “Last Dance.” Finally, disco balls drop, the three Donnas reunite in emotional unity and the audience – just like the last number of MAMA MIA - is on its feet. There’s a moment or two of fun, but the thrill is gone. Disco down. And out.
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