As with all of the shows in its genre, the latest offering in the surge of biographical jukebox musicals on Broadway, SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical, holds appeal for a built-in audience of the subject’s devoted fans, who, heaven knows, will love to love live covers of their idol’s greatest hits and lesser-known works (songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and others, with musical supervision and arrangements by Ron Melrose), tenuously strung together with snippets of her life (book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff, who also directs). And that’s exactly what they get: a show at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre that feels more like an excuse for a glossy big-talent tribute concert (though not of the look-alike/sound-alike variety) than a substantive dramatic narrative or an illuminating reflection on the real person behind the “Queen of Disco” persona.
The large cast, led by Tony Award-winner LaChanze as Diva Donna, Broadway veteran Ariana DeBose as Disco Donna, and, in her Broadway debut, Storm Lever as Duckling Donna (representing the star at three different ages, with LaChanze and Lever doubling respectively as her mother Mary Gaines and first daughter Mimi), performs 23 songs in the context of Summer’s last show and “the concert of a lifetime” – both the audience’s and hers, literally interspersing the musical numbers with “fragments” of memories from her personal and professional life (Bruce Sudano, her husband of 32 years, played here by the fine Jared Zirilli, is credited as Story Consultant). Diva Donna serves as narrator, directly addressing the audience with her in-concert commentary (occasionally followed by the noise of the crowd’s enthusiastic responses, in an immersive sound design by Gareth Owen), moving back and forth in time from the songs to the non-linear recollections of her traumas and triumphs – and with two or all three of the Donnas inexplicably appearing, conversing, and singing together in many of the sequences.
From Summer’s childhood in Boston, through her early career in Germany, her meteoric rise to success in the American music industry, the relationships and scandals that plagued her, to her turn to painting, return to Christian devotion, and ultimate diagnosis with lung cancer (which claimed her life in 2012, at the age of 63), the selected reminiscences are too often used as flimsy segues into the next song (e.g., as she sits in the car she was distractedly driving, she notes that she’s listening to the radio, other drivers are also listening to the radio and might be hearing her songs, then launches into – surprise! – “On the Radio”). In some cases, the transitions seem to come out of nowhere, as when other cars pull up alongside hers and a chorus line of prostitutes suddenly appears in front of them, to sing and dance along with Donna to “Bad Girls.”
Throughout the show, there is little emotional or psychological depth or exposition (you can get more detailed information by simply Googling Donna Summer). The most emotive segment comes near the end, as LaChanze’s Diva Donna offers a moving version of “Friends Unknown” with an apologia for the homophobic comments she made about “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” – though the script does not address the even more incendiary statement she is also said to have made during her 1983 performance in Atlantic City, about “evil homosexuality” and AIDS being “the result of your sins.” Scenes recalling her sexual abuse from the age of eleven by the minister of her church and her physical abuse by a German man from her past (she fought back, had him arrested, and he was consequently deported) seem more stagey than horrific, the latter using an oversized coffee-table book as a sight-gag (there’s nothing witty about the abuse of women) and reference to Summer’s famous duet with Barbra Streisand on “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” – the segment’s obvious featured song. And a blatant thread of questionable attempts to portray Summer as a feminist, clearly inserted to appeal to a current audience, is in no way aided by the casting of women (donning short haircuts and men’s attire) in the male ensemble roles.
Where SUMMER shines is in the powerhouse voices of the leads, on such blockbuster hits as “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Last Dance” (which, needless to say, closes the show – though out of chronological sequence in her career) and in Lever’s impassioned rendition of “On My Honor,” backed by the harmonious ensemble as a full gospel choir. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo is at its best in the scenes of disco dancing, recreating the authentic moves of the period, while “She Works Hard for the Money” evokes more the look of a concept music video, with the ensemble dancing around an office in suits and carrying briefcases (again casting women as the businessmen). Adding to the hedonistic sights and feel of the disco era are glittering costumes by Paul Tazewell, glowing colorful digital projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis, and an efficient period-style scenic design by Robert Brill that quickly shifts from the vintage furniture and TV of Summer’s childhood home to her upscale post-modern digs to the hottest dance clubs of the time, replete with a giant reflector ball and silver confetti that showers down from the ceiling.
If you’re an aficionado of disco, there’s no denying the appeal of the music that defined her generation and made her one of its shining stars, and if you’re a devoted theatergoer, you can’t help but enjoy the outstanding vocal talents of LaChanze, DeBose, and Lever, or the transportive design by the ace artistic team. What is lacking in SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical is a thoughtful and compelling storyline that seriously considers the disturbing issues of her life, without glossing over them or using them as mere points of transition in the song list.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.