Monday, April 23, 2018

'Summer: The Donna Summer Musical': Would've Loved to Love You, Baby

"Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" premiered tonight on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, with three women stepping into the shoes of the late Queen of Disco. Summer is said to have wanted this jukebox story of her life to be made, having apparently worked on an early version it before her sudden death from lung cancer in 2012 at 63. But there's no doubt she's not dancing with Steve Rubell in Heaven 54 tonight after seeing what they came up in her absence. 

Three faces of Donna: LaChanze (diva), Storm Lever (duckling) and Ariana DeBose (disco)

Now my lukewarm feelings about musicals are no secret. But as a lifetime Donna Summer fan, I went into this excited and with an open heart -- yet I have to be honest when I say it was one of the most cringe-inducing theatrical experiences of my life. And that two of the leads -- LaChanze and Ariana DeBose -- were wonderful performers and the music (obviously) is one classic hit after the next yet the show was still so dismal speaks to just how ill-conceived it was. Apparently writers Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff never got to the "show don't tell" chapter in their Writing 101 books, because the entire play is one embarrassingly literal monologue after the next, with these three poor women reciting dialogue along the lines like "Then I moved to Munich and there was a lot of art but I was the only black person so it was weird"(!) and "Once you’re on a roller coaster it’s real hard to get off”(!!). And rather than giving any thoughtful attention to the events of her remarkable life -- such as her circuitous rise to international stardom, interracial marriages, decision to leave her newborn daughter to be raised by her parents, substance abuse, childhood sexual abuse, ambivalence about being a sex goddess when she was brought up as a church choir girl, suicide attempt -- let alone her alienating her fanbase at the height of her fame by becoming a Born Again Christian, each detail is quickly glossed over as if the producers were going down a checklist culled from her Wikipedia entry. Things got even worse when Diva Donna spent all of two minutes addressing/brushing off the career-damaging rumor that she had told a concert audience in the early '80s that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexual "sin." In the musical, the whole thing gets truncated to "I made a bad joke about Adam and Steve, but some of my best friends are gay so there’s no way I’m homophobic." (For the record, she denied making any of the statements about gay people, yet the musical has her taking “credit” for the one.) Diva Donna is then forced to say “God made Adam and Steve and Eve and Louise and everybody else” -- an applause line -- yet rather than putting my hands together I felt myself blushing for the actress having to deliver this shoehorned soliloquy.

 To be fair, though, the writers' one major attempt to "show" rather than "tell" -- in this case about an incident involving a violent ex-boyfriend -- saw the cast flailing around to the pulsating beat of "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" (get it?) in what can only be described as the most (unintentionally) hilarious depiction of domestic abuse to date. (I'd go back a dozen times for the camp value of that scene alone if not for the steep ticket prices!) The 100-minute show has no intermission, and I can't help but think this was by design so the audience wouldn't be able to compare notes about what they were witnessing. (About the audience: Summer's hits are so good that a few people seemed to want to clap or get up to dance. But then the dumbfounding monologues would start again, so no one could ever work up any real excitement/momentum.) So rather than wasting your time with this double-knit nightmare, might I suggest spending two hours at home listening to Donna Summer's "Greatest Hits Volumes I and II," "Endless Summer" or her seminal double "Bad Girls" album. Her music has been here all along. But perhaps the one positive thing that can come out of this debacle is that it will encourage people to remember what a true pioneer she was, something "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" somehow manages to miss completely.


JimmyD said...

Yikes! I had no idea Des McAnuff was involved.
Everything you say is what I've been hearing from everyone I know who has seen it.

jaragon said...

It sounds like a bad musical theater classic

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