Thursday, April 26, 2018

212 (2017-2018): Review: SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL (seen April 25, 2018)

“She Worked Hard for the Money”

Three huge disco balls wait patiently in place before dropping in late in the show to turn the Lunt-Fontanne into Studio 54 during its heyday and dazzle the revved up fanboys and fangirls at Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Broadway’s latest contribution to the mounting list of pop-music jukebox musicals. As a cast of nearly two-dozen singer-dancer-musician-actors blast out “Last Dance,” led by three sequined performers representing the eponymous Disco Queen, only the folks in wheelchairs don’t rise to clap their hands and boogie in place. 
Storm Lever. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s a rousing conclusion to a determinedly energetic, if clichéd and formulaic, 100-minute tribute to the life of Donna Summer, the sensationally successful diva. She was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston in 1948 but killed by lung cancer at 63 in 2012, Summer’s lengthy Wikipedia entry reveals a startling number of top-ranking songs and albums. Obviously, this condensed version of her life and greatest hits is highly selective.

Among the 23 numbers—during whose renditions the audience is invited to sing or even dance along—are “The Queen Is Back,” “I Feel Love,” “Love to Love You Baby,” “l Remember Yesterday,” “MacArthur Park,” “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough,” “On the Radio,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “I Believe in Jesus,”  “Dim All the Lights,” “Hot Stuff,” and so on. Even “White Boys” from the musical Hair makes an entrance.
Ariana DeBose, LaChanze, Storm Lever. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Some tunes are sung only partially, others all the way through. Too bad Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose’s orchestrations have a ramped-up Broadway sound that makes several songs sound like hard-thumping variations of others.  A healthy assortment is performed to Sergio Trujillo’s slick choreography; most look like expensive music videos, an appropriate influence in this context. A welcome twist is having all the chorus dancers played by women, some of them cross-dressing.

Hair, you may know, played a major role in the young singer’s life when, as Sheila, she traveled to Germany in the early 70s with a touring version of the show. We learn this in the biographical interstices weaving the songs together in what is essentially a splashy concert.
Ariana Debose and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Three faultless, exceptional performers play Donna Summer: LaChanze, who serves as the linking narrator, and is a potent diva in her own right, serves as Diva Donna (Donna in her 50s), while the diminutive Storm Lever is Duckling Donna (Donna as a pre-teen) and Ariana DeBose is Disco Donna (Donna in her late teens and 20s), whose dancing chops are as outstanding as her vocal ones.

The sketchy dialogue scenes (book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and director Des McAnuff) touch only the highlights of Summer’s life, much of it outlined in her 2003 autobiography, Ordinary Girl: The Journey. Occasionally, an applause-generating remark about women’s equality jumps out to show Summer’s commitment to that issue.

The script tracks her life from her teens (as one of seven siblings) to her death, turning her remarkable success story into a familiar succession of brief scenes, with her songs intended to somehow connect to them. Thus, for example, when record producer Neil Bogart (Drew Wildman Foster) dies, the next song we hear is “Dim All the Lights.”

We learn of Donna’s strict, churchgoing family’s resistance to the show business life she’s chosen (including her dropping out of high school just before graduating); her free-loving, European romances; her marriage to and divorce from Helmuth (Foster), the abusive Austrian who fathered her first daughter, then married and divorced her; her stable marriage to singer-songwriter Bruce Sudano (Jared Zirilli), father of two of her three daughters; her recording career, with the same record business complications all these bios seem to encounter; her financial setbacks; her use of “blue pills”; her rediscovering Jesus; her accomplishments as a painter; and her learning of the illness that would kill her.

It all plays out in Robert Brill’s open stage design, framed by an illuminated false proscenium on which place names speed by (often, too quickly) as the story shifts territory. Numerous square and rectangular units fly in and out displaying brightly colored, artfully designed projections (by Sean Niewenhuis), including the occasional eye, nose, or mouth (these come together neatly as a Summer’s portrait during “Last Dance”). Downstage, three square columns rise and fall on elevator traps with one or the other of the stars standing on them.
LaChanze. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Howard Binkley creates the dazzling lighting, and Paul Tazewell adds his Great White Way touch to the everyday clothes and the razzle dazzle of all the production numbers and glam diva costumes. It looks like a good time to be in the sequin business, just as it is for wigmakers like Charles G. LaPointe who have so many actors in multiple roles to cover. One can imagine the controlled chaos of backstage changes in an episodic show like this.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is not destined to be a classic, nor is it even in the class of something similar, like Jersey Boys. Its critical reception has not been overwhelmingly positive. Surprisingly, two veteran critics I met before the show even told me they weren’t looking forward to it. I don’t know how they felt afterward but I, despite the show’s weaknesses, couldn’t prevent myself from liking it. My middle-aged daughter, the niche theatregoer the show is aiming at, loved it.
Ariana DeBose. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Donna Summer’s music may never have been intended for Broadway but, if you like her songs you’re going to have a good time. In the fall, another Broadway show based on a famous singer’s life and music will be upon us. It, too, will feature three women in the title role—someone named Cher.

Until then, two words: “Let’s Dance.”


Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
206 W. 46th St., NYC
Open run