A critique of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, utilizing several musical numbers and selected lyrics from the show:
“The Queen Is Back.” Would that the five-time Grammy Award-winning global star, who passed away in 2012, actually return to Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne to see how Director Des McAnuff has bastardized her discography, it is highly improbable that her reaction would be “I Feel Love.” Particularly when her biggest hit, “Love to Love You Baby”-which includes simulated moans and orgasms-is sung not once, but twice to a newborn baby.
“I Remember Yesterday.” I want to forget Summer. “On my Honor” I can assure you that you’re unlikely to see a bigger misfire on a New York stage at the moment.
Walking into the intermissionless 100-minute show, one might believe that time would fly. Yet with McAnuff, Colman Domingo, and Robert Cary‘s aimless book, it’s painfully obvious that their story is going “Faster and Faster to Nowhere.” The spoken plea in the middle of that song captured my sentiment: “Help me. I wanna get out. HELP!”
“White Boys,” from the musical Hair, was recorded by LaDonna Adrian Gaines (who would eventually be known as Donna Summer) after the singer landed her first job in the German production. Here, Ariana DeBose begins the number while an LED screen scrolls across the top of the stage. The message informs us of what we’re watching: “White Boys” from HAIR. Apparently, the writers believe that their audiences have no knowledge or reference point of anything other than disco. It is one of the many moments of pandering and condescension on this discombobulated dance floor.
Three variations of Ms. Summer are embodied throughout: Disco Donna (DeBose), Diva Donna (Tony winner LaChanze), and Duckling Donna (Storm Lever). This trio is in top voice. In spite of the jerry-built material, they bring a vital and much-needed ingredient of phenomenal talent to the stage.
After complaining to her managers that “nobody in America knows I can sing”, Disco Donna’s manager-played with stereotypical artifice- says, “Then show them. Show them all.”
Enter “MacArthur Park.” Someone did more than “leave the cake out in the rain.” They drenched the recipe for how to construct a show with more sophistication than a children’s picture book.
Speaking of pictures, let’s take a moment to analyze a few of Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projection designs. Although projections have recently overpowered Broadway stages, they can sometimes be quite useful in enhancing the experience and suggesting the setting. Not in Summer.
Early in the show, Duckling Donna is enjoying a slightly rebellious phase through lipstick, Coca-Cola, and cigarettes, each of which is flashed onto 3 separate screens. Later, Diva Donna admits to making offensive comments to her gay fans. Before singing “Friends Unknown”, three different images appear. They are meant to be club kids from the seventies, though they look more like stock photography from a HomeGoods picture frame. It’s followed by additional patronizing dialogue intended to assuage anger from the gay community.
“Heaven Knows” why the book writers chose to gloss over Joe “Bean” Esposito, who provided the lead vocals for this 1979 hit. Instead, Summers’ would-be husband, Bruce Sudano (Jared Zirilli) covers his part. It’s definitely “not the way it should be.”
Providence holds an even greater mystery in Disco Donna’s living room. When her German ex-lover, Gunther (Aaron Krohn) returns, he pulls a gun in the midst of his jealous fit of anger. While she pleads for “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)”, a poorly choreographed fight ensues. The gun is knocked from his hands with a large Barbra Streisand coffee table book. Remember…because Babs joined Summer for the 1979 hit? Simultaneously, I was hit in the head by yet another blatant “tell, don’t show” moment in this dippy discotheque.
“If I had known of what would come, I might have walked out of here a lot less harmed,” Duckling Donna sings in “Pandora’s Box.” Personally, I doubt that I would be less critical. At a top ticket cost of $169 dollars per ticket, audiences deserve to know what they’re getting. To that end, Summer delivers a harmful blow to good taste as well as to the wallet.
Where did the production money go for Robert Brill’s scenic design? Evidently, on real cars in scene 12. An ordinary Disco Donna is determined to learn how to drive. As she does, she “looks over at other cars” and thinks “maybe they’re singing my songs”. Hmmm…would one of those songs just happen to be “On the Radio?” Of course it would, because there is more subtlety on television’s RuPaul’s Drag Race than there is in this jukebox musical. Oh but wait! Is that Summer’s soon to be husband pulling up beside her in another vehicle? It is indeed–and they’re gonna sing “I Love You.”
Is this show over yet?
Nope. You’re gonna hear many other tunes, including “Bad Girls” and “Last Dance.” Insert your own jokes and eye rolls here.
“She Works Hard For the Money” may be one of the only genuine numbers in this piece. Summer found inspiration for it after listening to a bathroom attendant complain of exhaustion from working two jobs. It also gives us a glimpse into the artists’ struggle to be respected in the male-driven, often chauvinistic record industry.
The multi-ethnic and androgynous ensemble are also breaking their necks to earn paychecks. Though Sergio Trujillo’s normally inventive choreography is reduced to repetitive simplicity here, the ensemble is featured in most numbers throughout.
Ticket holders who want to relive the seventies are not going to find it here. Scenic designer Brill, along with Howell Binkley’s lighting, have scrubbed clean the dark underbelly of disco. Glitz and glamour existed, sure, but underneath lay covert danger, drugs, and sexual energy. Those elements are depicted here with the reality of an after-school special. Paul Tazewell’s fabulous costumes help to alleviate the sanitized nature, but not enough to transport audiences to the bygone days of Studio 54.
I truly wanted to love this. Despite one’s affection or disdain for disco, Donna Summer-beneath all the syncopated rhythms and synthesizers– remains one the finest American vocalists. It’s too bad that her life story has become so reductive. To evoke her disco contemporaries the Bee Gees, this tribute amounts to little more than a “Tragedy.”
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is now playing at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater (205 West 46th Street between 8th and Broadway.) For tickets and information, visit here.