Entertainment » Theatre

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

by Kevin Taft
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Dec 5, 2017
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

While the book for "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" is -- quite frankly -- a mess and needs a complete retool, there is something so infectious about this musical of Summer's life that you can't help but sort of love it in spite of that.

Written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and director Des McAnuff, the show plays like a Cliff Notes version of Summer's life, with various incidents occurring then disappearing in a puff of glitter dust. Things happen to her just so we know they happen, but we never really see how these things affected her life.

As a result, we sit in the audience saying to ourselves things like "I didn't know she was an artist" or "why was she so hyper-sexualized, yet ashamed of it?" We wonder how the sexual abuse by her minister affected her and if that had anything to do with the abusive German boyfriend who comes in and out of the story with so much as a slap and then it's off to another moment of her life.

Taking place on the night of her final concert (although the bookend of this does not work at all), Summer regales her audience with stories from her life. The flashbacks, which are basically the entire show, use three different actresses as different Donnas.

We have the later years Diva Donna (LaChanze), the '70s and '80s Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose), and teenage Duckling Donna (Storm Lever). This is one aspect of the show that works and not just because we get a look at different sides to Donna's life, but when the three perform together as an amalgamation of her personality, it is something to witness.

But that doesn't explain other artistic choices such as that most of the male characters are played by the (mostly) female ensemble. Producer/composer Giorgio Moroder is played by Mackenzie Bell for example, and the various men in Donna's life are often played by women. This is head-scratching because there are still male actors playing male characters (her husband Bruce Sudano is played lovingly by Jared Zirilli).

If the story was hitting hard on the fact that Donna Summer was an advocate for women's rights and equal pay and all that, maybe an entire female cast would make sense. But here -- when the ensemble is entirely dressed in suits and striking a masculine pose -- you just feel like you're watching a musical about butch lesbians or those that are gender fluid. It was a casting decision that served no dramatic purpose and was frustratingly distracting.

All of this said, the actresses sell the hell out of the show and make up for a book that doesn't really do Summer justice. The musical numbers feature Summer songs from the '70s all the way to her 2009 release "Crayons" and are used quite well. They never feel shoe-horned in and the three lead actresses sing the hell out of them. It's hard to even pinpoint a favorite.

Lever's first big number as Duckling Donna -- a gospel infused number called "On My Honor" -- is stunning. DeBose frequently floored the audience with any number of her most popular hits, but it was her rendition of MacArthur Park that made you realize you were dealing with a star. And what can you say about LaChanze (who does double duty as both Diva Donna and Donna's mother Mary)? She is effortless and her rendition of "Dim All the Lights" is show-stopping.

As a pre-Broadway tryout in LaJolla, "Summer" needs a lot of work in the story department. It needs to feel more organic and it needs to make the audience walk out without a myriad of questions that a quick run to Wikipedia ends up answering. At the same time, I walked out loving the show despite the issues. If the writers and producers can really hone in on her life they could have something truly fantastic here.

At one hour and forty-five minutes, this is a show that begs to be expanded to two acts. Summer deserves that. After all, this might be her "Last Dance."

"Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" has been extended to December 24 at the La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, California 92037. For information and tickets, visit www.lajollaplayhouse.org.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.


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