REVIEW: “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is Not Hot Stuff
Someone left the cake out in the rain, all right. While no amount of nostalgia can solely and successfully sustain 100 minutes of a jukebox musical, one thing is abundantly clear after seeing “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”: she wrote and sang some damn good songs. Unfortunately, this show strips those songs of the pure joy they possess, and drops them into a dull and lifeless account of a fascinating and lively personality.
A musical tribute to Donna Summer (1948-2012) makes sense. She was, after all, the first recording artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number-one on the Billboard charts, scoring four number-one singles in the U.S. within a single 12-month period. Summer reigned over a genre of music she helped to create, that captured the spirit of the nation in the late-1970s, and still beats in the hearts of fans worldwide. There is a reason she was coronated the “Queen of Disco”, for no other artist singularly defined that era or left more of an imprint.
I wish the terribly flat tribute to her life that opened tonight at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre on Broadway honored her royal status by living up to its stated promise of being a “concert of a lifetime”. That concept, one last concert, one “Last Dance”, could have been an effective and entertaining way to tell Summer’s story and share the songs we all know and love.
Instead, it is a conceit quickly abandoned to the type of fast-moving, fourth-wall shattering, expository narration that characterized “Jersey Boys”—director Des McAnuff’s earlier, successful collaboration with choreographer Sergio Trujillo—with flashbacks, dramatized scenes, and realistic settings that belie the initial concert idea. Lightening doesn’t strike twice, and this format proves to be an unfocused, rushed, and superficial way to tell the story of one woman and her music.
The very first number, “The Queen Is Back”, underscores one of many problems. Unlike Cher and Tina Turner whose hit-making musical careers spanned decades—and who, incidentally, both have bio-musicals aimed for Broadway—Summer had an unparalleled but concentrated string of disco hits from 1975 to 1979, and nearly everything after, with the exception of 1983’s “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Unconditional Love”, is unknown.
Choosing “The Queen Is Back”, from Summer’s last album released in 2008, to open the show strikes an inauspicious and unfamiliar note. It takes a few numbers to hit the groove it should from the very start, then once the story moves beyond the sacred years of her disco peak, the soundtrack collapses again without nostalgia propping it up. A song like “Friends Unknown” from 1991 is given precious time, while countless disco classics don’t even make the cut.
Further frustrating the concept is Summer’s divided onstage persona. Three actors play the part, each punctuating an era in her life: Duckling Donna (Storm Lever), Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose), and Diva Donna (LaChanze). Of the three, only LaChanze, who is simply radiant throughout, captures the essence of the real Donna Summer’s look and sound. The other two lack the richness and overall ease of Summer’s vocals, instead substituting runs and idiosyncrasies that were not part of her act.
The first concert I ever attended was Donna Summer’s “Mid Summer Nights Dream Tour” in 1996, and I still remember being blown away by the power of her voice. That all three actors slipped into head voice for that last, glorious note in “McArthur Park” was a disappointment, to say the least. Elsewhere, only LaChanze summons the “wow” of hearing Donna Summer sing. The material is not divided evenly among the three, and while Ms. DeBose is a real triple threat (she can dance), it is LaChanze who shines and who, alone, should play the part.
An all-female chorus, playing both male and female background characters, is surely trying to say something, I just don’t know what, since the men in Summer’s life—her father Andrew Gaines, record executive Neil Bogart, and husband Bruce Sudano—are played by male actors, while her collaborators, Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder, are played by women in drag, and not credited in the program. That, too, is bizarre, since it was Summer’s groundbreaking studio work with Moroder that produced “Love to Love You Baby”—that 17 minute orgasm to music heard ‘round the world—in 1975, and skyrocketed Summer to stardom.
Moroder is the godfather of electronic music. “I Feel Love”, which he wrote with Summer in 1977, broke the mold and revolutionized music forever; most dance songs since are comment on or mere copy (see: Madonna’s “Future Lovers”). In fact, the Library of Congress added the song to the National Recording Registry in 2011, rightly recognizing its importance in the development of popular music.
Stories about how such music history was made would enliven this show, instead, we are treated to banally scripted scenarios with a constantly shifting Donna, including an awkward and out-of-the-blue scene of domestic violence set to “Enough is Enough”, an off-putting and borderline offensive apologia for the pattern of anti-LGBT remarks she made once becoming a born-again Christian in the early-1980s, and overly sentimental scenes with her daughters.
The uninspiring set by Robert Brill uses a series of square LED screens to clumsily designate place and mood, mixed with literal pieces like three cars for “On the Radio” (really?), all appropriately lit by Howell Binkley’s concert lighting—replete with spinning disco balls and Studio 54’s iconic, suspended light towers. Mr. Trujillo’s sharp and poppy choreography fails to capture the ebullient essence of the disco dance floor, and having the ensemble pretend to play instruments more than once is not only cheesy (think inflatable saxophone at a Bar Mitzvah), but rubs in the ultimate, and most unforgivable sin of this show.
For a musical about an iconic singer who was on the forefront of creating and shaping an entire genre of music, getting the sound of that music right is paramount to the success of the story. Disco’s roots are found in funk and soul, and it requires a specific instrumentation combining drums, percussion, strings, horns, electric piano, and electric rhythm guitars alongside synthesizers, all driven by a constant “four-on-the-floor” beat with an open hi-hat on the off-beat. That’s what makes it disco.
The orchestrations by Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose disgrace the genre, and it’s revealed why, during curtain call, when the onstage screens cut to live video of the pit band, which consists of only seven players. No brass. No strings. Just three keyboards, a bass, a guitar, drums, and percussion. Disco needs to breathe and feel both organic and luxurious, but in “Summer” it is artificial, thin, and soulless, lacking any sense of authenticity and never evoking the decadent, hedonistic, and hazy era it embodied.
A couple of years ago, while sifting through some LPs, I stumbled on “Live and More”, a live recording of a concert Summer performed in Los Angeles in 1978—a queen at the apex of her power, a week-and-a-half before the release of “Last Dance”, which she teases as the finale. Within minutes of dropping the turntable needle, I was transfixed. Summer’s banter is poised and playful while evincing the shy, wholesome personality that laid beneath the glitter and glitz of her disco persona, and side one’s non-stop medley of six songs is simply thrilling and intoxicating. That’s because she’s properly backed by a 29 piece orchestra, including three trumpets, three trombones, three sax, and a ten-piece string section. That’s the disco sound. It’s lush, and requires personnel that cannot be authentically replaced by computer.
A real tribute to Donna Summer would treat her music with the same reverence that she did. If you want to hear the “concert of a lifetime”, heaven knows, skip the impersonating jukebox at the Lunt Fontanne, dim all the lights, stamp your feet, and give “Live and More” a listen. I promise you won’t regret it. It’s the real hot stuff.
Bottom Line: “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is a flat and soulless jukebox tribute to the “Queen of Disco” that disgraces the genre she created by offering thin orchestrations, inauthentic choreography, and a song listing that includes too many obscure cuts from later in her career. LaChanze’s radiant performance is not enough to salvage this joyless and unfocused show. Save your money and listen to Summer’s iconic songs instead.
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”
Lunt Fontanne Theatre
205 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: April 23, 2018
Final Performance: open ended