Following the trend of commercialization on Broadway, jukebox musicals are coming back. At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the latest such prodiction is available for audiences to enjoy, in the form of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
Crowned as the queen of disco, Summer, born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, was the ultimate diva with an array of chart-topping hits and accolades that would make any current pop star feel threatened. Her voice defined the sound of the decade and her songs commanded generations to dance like nobody was watching.
While younger theatergoers may be unfamiliar with her legacy, Summer is the perfect subject for a 2018 biographical musical: she was an unapologetically fierce woman who fought hard for her money and time under the spotlight in the wild ‘70s that were dominated by men.
Unfortunately, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical does a great injustice to the legend whose legacy extends far beyond a voice on the dance floor.
Under the meticulous direction of Des McAnuff, the iconic singer is portrayed by three different actresses who represent Summer’s different life stages. Tony Award-winning powerhouse LaChanze plays “Diva Donna” from Summer’s later years, who also serves as the show’s narrator. Hamilton prodigy Ariana DeBose portrays “Disco Donna,” the future star ascending to fame. Broadway debutant Storm Lever is a real storm as “Duckling Donna,” who is learning to love herself by singing at church and showcasing talent that makes the whole world dance. Effortlessly catching each note like a puma hunting for prey, these ladies truly show that the best vocals of the season are at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Inspired by the biographical musical Ordinary Girl — which Donna Summer herself was developing and planning to star in prior to her death in 2012 — Summer butchers the story of the person it tries to celebrate. The musical declares itself as an ode to a woman’s will and independence, trying to present the protagonist as a complex figure and a victim of fame.
In reality, the audience is sentenced to watching near-robotic scenes, during which the forced and lazy dialogue becomes filler between endless chart-topping classics. The musical numbers themselves are divine and full of disco atmosphere, cohesive narrative and shimmering choreography by Sergio Trujillo. But writers McAnuff, Robert Cary and Colman Domingo should have been reminded that they were writing a musical and not an MTV music video.
Curiously enough, Summer was one of the first black women to receive heavy rotation on MTV — a fact that the show shamefully omits, as well as any other incidents of racism that the singer had to encounter over her lifetime.
Even the attempts to highlight Summer’s toughest moments such as drug addiction, physical abuse and childhood molestation are reduced to momentary references, quick to be dismissed and even quicker to be forgotten.
To be fair, it is a very rare occasion when a jukebox musical takes a close look at traditional aspects of theater. The subgenre tends to focus on milking every last drop out of the songs that people are expected to know before they even buy the ticket.
Summer begins with “The Queen is Back,” which serves as a warm-up before the main star enters the stage. The opening number is a rather simple song that should have been cut short and replaced with an overture.
When Donna finally takes the stage, the audience is eased into the familiar beat of “I Feel Love” — a timeless anthem that is still regarded as disco’s greatest child and was produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. It is followed up by “Love to Love You Baby”— a seductive confession that stirred sexual revolution in clubs across the world. Happy with the set list, the audience may forgive the flaws of the production because, after all, they came for the songs.
The show eventually warms up. After a rusty opening that is plagued by non-cohesive development, Summer’s story erupts into a fabulous end.
One of the show’s final moments is the queen of disco’s most electrifying song, “Hot Stuff,” and DeBose works that number like a lioness, ready to shatter the glitter ball.
The audience barely gets a chance to breathe before LaChanze fills the theater with the crystallizing beginning of the Academy Award-winning “Last Dance.” And it only takes a quick tempo change for the audiences to spring to their feet and applaud all the way through the final bow.
Despite critical concerns, the singer’s endless music will always deserve a standing ovation.