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Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 23, 2018

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and others. Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Music supervision and arrangements by Ron Melrose. Scenic design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Projection design by Sean Nieuwenhuis. Wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Fight director Steve Rankin. Story consultant Bruce Sudano. Orchestrations by Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose. Music coordinator John Miller. Music director Victoria Theodore. Cast: LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, Storm Lever, Aaron Krohn, Ken Robinson, Jared Zirilli, Angelica Beliard, Mackenzie Bell, Kaleigh Cronin, Kimberly Dodson, Anissa Felix, Drew Wildman Foster, Kendal Hartse, Afra Hines, Jenny Laroche, Aurelia Michael, Wonu Ogunfowora, Jody Reynard, Rebecca Riker, Christina Acosta Robinson, Jessica Rush, Kim Steele, and Harris M. Turner.
Theatre: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Ticketmaster

LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, Storm Lever, and The Company
Photo by Joan Marcus

LaChanze, the Tony-winning star of the original Broadway production of The Color Purple, truly works hard for the money. So hard for it, honey, that it's a shame she is stuck in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, opening tonight in an ill-conceived production at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Referred to here as "Diva Donna," LaChanze is one of three performers who portray Ms. Summer in this sorry excuse for a Broadway show, even allowing for the lowered expectations for the subgenre known as the jukebox musical. The others are Storm Lever, a young singer/actress making her Broadway debut as a version of Ms. Summer known as "Duckling Donna," and Ariana DeBose (Jane in A Bronx Tale) as "Disco Donna."

Both Ms. Lever and Ms. DeBose are fine singers, but only LaChanze has the experience, commanding presence, and powerhouse vocal cords to convince us that Donna Summer was a force to be reckoned with, a superstar of the 1970s who earned and retained for the rest of her life the title of "Disco Queen."

I am perfectly willing to concede a place on Broadway for jukebox musicals. But sitting through this one made me think longingly back a few weeks to Escape to Margarittaville, playing just across the street at the Marquis. At least it has a bar set up where you can grab one of those "frozen concoctions" to set the mood. Unfortunately, it would take several margaritas to take the edge off the experience of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Which is a shame. Because its subject, Ms. Summer, is as worthy as anyone to be the center of attention for such a show. She had a successful career that spanned three decades, earning her five Grammys and 32 hit singles, and her "Disco Queen" honorific follows her to this day, six years after her death. Her hit songs included such club favorites as "Heaven Knows," "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff," "She Works Hard for the Money," and "Last Dance," whose very title guarantees it will have the final send-‘em-out-dancing spot on the program.

If only director Des McAnuff, who previously helmed stage productions of The Who's Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and a little thing called Jersey Boys, had made an effort to come up with a less generic production and a better script than the culled-from-Wikipedia one he wrote with Colman Domingo, and Robert Cary. In truth, you could shuffle things around just a little bit to accommodate any disco-era performer. Can "Gaynor: The Gloria Gaynor Musical" be far behind?

The show glosses over a checklist of biographical moments that together provide the sketchiest of portraits of Ms. Summer's life, from her childhood in Boston to her sojourn in Munich, where she appeared in a production of Hair and recorded her breakthrough hit "Love to Love You, Baby," through her professional triumphs and tribulations, and her marriage in 1980 to musician Bruce Sudano (Jared Zirilli) that lasted until her death in 2012. This oh-by-the-way approach is also applied to a period of sexual abuse by the family preacher and career-stalling homophobic comments attributed to the singer, both significant issues that are barely addressed here.

Having three "Donnas" on stage, sometimes simultaneously, gives the enterprise a schizophrenic feeling, compounded by the fact that LaChanze also appears as her own mother, and Storm Lever also shows up as Ms. Summer's daughter Mimi. The ensemble is made up almost entirely of women, many of whom play men's roles. Yet if there is a feminist thread running through the production, it is a thin and clichéd one. A representative sample would be this line spoken by "Diva Donna," who refers to her song "She Works Hard for the Money" as a tribute to "a whole generation of women who were paid half of what men made for working twice as hard."

The design elements, from Robert Brill's floating set to Sean Nieuwenhuis's projections, Paul Tazewell's sequined gowns, and Sergio Trujillo's disco-suggestive choreography, would all be at home on a Donna Summer TV special that might have aired during her heyday. But even diehard fans who are willing to put up with the lame script will be disappointed when they find that many of the 23 songs in the program are offered up as truncated excerpts. Only during the closing minutes of the show, when all pretense of storytelling is set aside, are the three stars allowed to give the kind of performances that might very well get the audience singing along and dancing in the aisles. But really, to quote one of Donna Summer's song titles, "Enough Is Enough." If the intention is to really pay tribute to her, then how about borrowing from Aretha Franklin and show some "R-E-S-P-E-C-T!" I say give LaChanze a mike, a stool, a spotlight, and a hot band and backup singers, and let her loose on the Donna Summer songbook. Now that would be a show worth seeing.

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