The Donna Summer Tribute Site

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical  April 29, 2018

A Fan Review by David Messineo

 

REVIEW: "SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL," FROM A LONGTIME DS FAN WHO'S SEEN THE SHOW - Anyone who sets him or herself up to create a musical to celebrate and shine a spotlight on both the 43-year public career, and private and family life, of Donna Summer is in for a daunting challenge. From her 1968 performances in "Haare" (Hair) in Germany (youtube.com/watch?v=zWXjTDnC-100) to her final public appearances with David Foster at Mandalay Bay on October 1, 2011 (youtube.com/watch?v=mlckkuvN7EY), Donna Summer will be remembered by many (especially here) as one of the most talented female singers whose career spanned both the 20th and 21st centuries. From her soaring vocals to her perfect pitch, and that vibrant timbre on the many sustained notes in her multi-octave range, Donna could, and did, sing in almost every genre, rising way beyond the "Queen of Disco" label tagged upon her early in her career. How do you, adequately and accurately, represent someone with that kind of life on stage, in 1 hour and 45 minutes (roughly) with no intermission?

"Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" is one wild ride through one amazing person's life. It's a show that over-celebrates "women's empowerment" (more on that further down) and often disparages men, yet it was created by four men: three writing the book (Robert Cary, Colman Domingo, and Des McAnuff), and McAnuff doing double-duty as director. It's a show that offers the A-track, B-tracks, and "wish I could forget" tracks of Donna Summer's life, a blend of memorable highs and very dark lows. It's a show that gives three very talented actresses star turns as they represent Donna Summer at three stages of her life. It's unique, it's creative, it's clever in moments both brazen and subtle, it's entertaining, and it's, at times, surprisingly moving.

Let's first talk about what the show is not. It's not a vapid sing-and-dance-a-long, like Mamma Mia (thank God). It's not a really, really good cruise ship spectacle. It's not a chronological historical retrospective. Except in a few remarkable moments, it's not a spot-on visual and vocal match of Donna Summer. Excepting the full-length white mink fur coat from Four Seasons of Love, it sadly passed on the opportunity to reconstruct the attire we know and love from many Donna Summer albums, photo shoots, and tours.

It does offer 23 Donna Summer songs, most fully performed, in its hour and 45 minutes. Among these are some of her most popular hits, some of her most interesting and beautiful ballads, the treat of some songs Donna rarely or never performed in live concert, and songs from her first popular album (Love to Love You, Baby) and her last (Crayons). In many cases, the songs are utilized as a kind of Greek chorus or backdrop to a memory from Donna's life, whether a situation of physical abuse by a man, a suicide attempt, implied sexual abuse by a priest when she was a child, and even the controversial "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" comment at one concert that exploded into the international rage of thousands of (primarily) gay men tossing her albums, and creating a huge public relations headache that continued for years and cut her album sales. This process leads some of the songs fans would know to be reconfigured in new, surprising, and creative contexts that move the plot forward, and generally work well.

All three actresses portraying Donna Summer - "Duckling Donna" Storm Lever, "Disco Donna" Ariana DeBose, and "Diva Donna" LaChanze - gave superb vocal performances, but (especially at the start) I was frequently thinking "Donna Summer - often imitated, never duplicated" as one sounded like Eartha Kitt singing Donna Summer in one number, and another sounded (pretty remarkably) like Lea Michele from "Glee" singing another Donna Summer number. But an interesting thing happened on the way to the ending.

About halfway into the show, LaChanze - in conversation - starts to sound more like the real Donna Summer. And when she is solo at the piano in one number near the end, both talking and singing, for a few minutes you actually start to believe you're seeing Donna Summer, and hearing her sing "Friends Unknown" - one of Donna Summer's best ballads, written for her fans, and performed in a knockout theatrical moment, one of the best performances in the show.

The ensemble, primarily women - including a rare-for-Broadway all-female orchestra - are collectively superb. Many of the actresses do double and triple-duty in their roles, and find ways to make the characters distinguishable from each other. The show could partly be said to be reverse-Shakespearean at points, since several of the male parts are also played by women, and gender fluidity is represented, in scenes where it feels integral and not tacked-on to be politically correct.

Along with the acting and music, Sergio Trujillo - yep, another man - did a fine job as Choreographer. A big problem in several Broadway shows is the excessive inclusion of gratuitous dance numbers, where they don't feel appropriate nor integral. Donna Summer used dancers in many of her concerts and videos, so here, it's historically appropriate. My partner was a classical ballet dancer, and he said the choreography in the show was excellent. I agree - it felt like just enough, and was uniformly well performed. In the staging, large moving digital screens give us the "wow" visual factor of some live concerts, but are utilized to reflecting portions of Donna Summer's eyes, face, and expressions as the show moves along, as if she's watching over the show at it plays out.

Where I had problems with the show is where it didn't feel true to who I believe Donna Summer was, or how she presented herself publicly. Donna called herself "all about love," and that was for everyone - men, women, whomever. Donna never came across as highly political, and also very private. So to have Donna talk about "women being paid half of what men are" in a pointed moment in a press conference, or to brag about taking on the male-dominated record industry by suing to take control of her career (both of which appear as moments on stage) just doesn't feel appropriate in the context of portraying her onstage, regardless of her actual feelings on these points. Though it was true that the machinations of many men were integral and important to catapult Donna Summer to stardom, the only man in the show who comes across as decent and kind is her husband Bruce Sudano. And Donna was far from the first female singer to sue the record industry. Martha Reeves is on record saying "They call me Martha Sue Reeves because I'm suing everybody," and that was well before Donna (as one example).

There are a few things I would like to see changed. I would have liked to see the show tack on another 15 minutes, and explore two other major moments in Donna's later life: her decision to record a new album after a 17-year absence, and how her personal belief that few would remember or want to see her was totally unfounded; and her decision to take on the Art on Ice shows in Europe after being diagnosed with lung cancer. For those here who have never seen these Art on Ice clips on YouTube - also featuring a truly superb live orchestra - here is one of the best ones: youtube.com/watch?v=_I-6rMLKmW8

Also, while the show downplayed the "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" controversy, I would have cleared it up, once and for all. For the first time in 30+ years, we get the reasoning behind her making this comment. Is it the truth? Is it creative license? Who knows? I know it led to knock-out, drag-out arguments between me defending Donna, and fellow fans decrying her, not to mention what her religious turn did among her gay fans. I either would have had her simply sing her song "Forgive Me" - which would have given many of us the Donna Summer moment we wanted, but would have meant more actually coming from her while she was alive. Or, I would have kept it as it is, but added one more element: have LaChanze say a line, "Well, let me not tell you about it, but show you," drop down a large screen, and show the footage of Donna Summer in tears at a flurry of microphones at that raucous press conference. I saw a few seconds of this footage years after this incident, meaning film footage of that conference exists. Find it, get the rights to use it, put a full minute of it on a large screen on stage, make it the only actual appearance by Donna Summer in the show, and exonerate her, once and for all.

One more thing to add on this point: seeing a audience, including many gay men, applauding the performance of "I Believe In Jesus," after all WE'VE been put through by the Catholic Church and are STILL being put through (go look up "First Amendment Defense Act" on YouTube, and get ready to sigh "Here we go AGAIN."), was both healing and heartening to watch.

Finally, a minor criticism: In the performance we saw, for some reason one actress, I believe DeBose, starts walking around with a cane* throughout the show. Did she twist a leg and need it to make it through the performance? Did she have a fashion faux pas with a broken high heel that couldn't be repaired? Whatever, Donna only publicly used a cane once - in the choreography with her "I Remember Yesterday" performances. The cane was really distracting, and the actress should take a hiatus until she no longer needs it.

I saw people in the audience both near tears and crying at points in this show, and some of the scenes (and her experiences) are heartbreaking. Earlier, I referred to moments both brazen and subtle in the show, and this was one of them. (SPOILER ALERT - SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH NOW IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE SHOW.) In the scene where she is singing No More Tears, which is utilized as backdrop to a physical abuse incident, Donna at one moment in the scuffle cold-cocks the perpetrator on the chin with what looked like a framed photo of Barbra Streisand. Nice subtle touch.

Despite all the ups and downs, the show smartly ends on an upbeat party note, with high-energy performances of "Hot Stuff" and "Last Dance" to send people out of the theater singing. Definitely get up and dance for "Last Dance"!

Memory does not often come to us in chronological sequence - one song triggers one memory, another a different mood in time. When creating a painting (and Donna painting her abstract paintings is portrayed on stage), one doesn't start in the left corner and move to the right, but jumps around as it seems right in the process. This show takes a similar approach in its construction. It is neither haphazard nor confusing, especially for fans familiar with her life history. The best thing about this approach is that you know the story, but (if you don't look at the song list in the Playbill), you don't know what's coming next - which makes it mesmerizing to watch.

Absent a long-awaited mounting of the musical Donna Summer wrote, "Ordinary Girl," this show is the closest we're likely to get to seeing a mostly realistic portrayal of Donna Summer on stage once more. "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" is a complex portrait of, and moving tribute to, a remarkable woman who indeed was, for many of us, "the soundtrack of our lives." Honor her memory, go, and prepare yourself for the roller coaster highs and lows that were scenes in the painting of her life.

- Written by David Messineo, after the 3pm Broadway matinee performance on Sunday, April 29, 2018. About the Reviewer: David Messineo is among the 30 longest-serving literary magazine publishers and poetry editors still active in America: three-time winner in the national American Literary Magazine Awards, and recipient of a 2009 New Jersey State Jefferson Award for Public Service. He owns all of Donna Summer's albums, and has seen her in concert several times. A resident of New Jersey, he has been a Broadway buff for decades, and has seen shows on Broadway every year since 1978.

*Editor's Note: Ariana DeBose was suffering from an ankle injury and went on anyway, but with a cane. She did not use the cane in previous shows.

 




 

 © 2018 David Messineo
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