Anyone who worked as hard for her money – and for a professional respect that came too late – as Donna Summer did deserves so much more than this. A jukebox musical that could undo all the genre rehab delivered by superior shows built around Carole King and, if you want to stretch the definition a bit to include Lazarus, David Bowie, Broadway’s Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, opening tonight, is as unimaginative as its title.
With the saving graces of really fine vocal performances from LaChanze, Ariana DeBose and young Storm Lever – each plays the disco great at different points in her life – Summer dutifully pastes the life events of LaDonna Adrian Gaines to the hits she’d perform under the name thought up by pioneering producer Giorgio Moroder. “Summer,” the show’s writers have Moroder saying. “You know, like the season. Hot.”
Directed by Des McAnuff – who set the genre’s highest standards with The Who’s Tommy and Jersey Boys – Summer (book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and McAnuff) cooks up some excitement during the musical performances of hits like “I Feel Love,” “Love to Love You Baby,” “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” and the inevitable “Last Dance,” but mostly the songs come off as well-delivered covers, evoking little of the subversive, decadent ecstasy of the Studio 54 era (or the body-shuddering thrill of clubland’s sound systems).
Opening on a concert stage with hanging light-box panels that will be put to any number of video uses, the show’s first Donna, the fifty-ish “Diva Donna,” sets things up after a song with some scripted audience banter that the charming LaChanze delivers convincingly off the cuff. She’ll be our guide through the flashbacks that come, to the working-class Boston childhood where little “Duckling Donna” (played by Lever) finds her voice in a church solo that makes her stern old man (Ken Robinson) sob with pride, through the frenzied hit-making peak and personal lows of DeBose’s “Disco Donna.” (LaChanze occasionally slides into righteous mother Mary during the childhood scenes, and even she can’t get away with cliched pieties like “May angels walk with you everywhere you go.”)
Summer’s Wikipedia-page life events are addressed – her Munich recording sessions with the innovative Moroder, her Baby You’re A Star relationship with Casablanca Records’ Neil Bogart, disco fame, pill addiction, abusive men and a daughter she sends to mom and dad in Boston. Much is made of two defining struggles: her churchly origins forever battling success’ temptations, and an ongoing resentment over the perception that her inventive music and gorgeous voice are just so much robotic club fodder.
The book’s shallow treatment of even the most serious events – childhood molestation, adult domestic abuse, a teenage encounter with street violence, a suicide attempt, a stale marriage, the cancer diagnosis that would claim her at 63 in 2012 – is one-upped by the distraction of having many of the minor (and a few not so minor) male characters played by the female chorus ensemble, in campy, sketch-comedy drag that wouldn’t pass muster on a Saturday Night Live cold open. We’re left to assume the cross-dressing and age-defiance is a nod to what Diva Donna remembers as disco’s “world of mystery and androgyny,” but that’s little recompense when a supposedly vicious mugging targets an old woman resembling Vicki Lawrence’s Mama character.
And if we’re being really cynical, the cartoon androgyny (and the inclusion of an incidental, wisecracking gay pal) could be interpreted as a diversionary tactic from the controversy that would deflate Summer’s popularity among the men who were her earliest and strongest supporters. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” Summer said on stage one night in 1983 after re-finding religion, an incident the musical’s Regretful Donna unconvincingly explains away as a joke gone wrong. Of course that wouldn’t explain other reported comments (ignored by Summer) like the one about AIDS being God’s punishment, a remark or rumor that the singer strongly denied but that clouded her career nonetheless. Imagine a biography, musical or otherwise, that wrestled with that.