Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
At the James M. Nederlander Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago –The disco era in pop music passed me by during its heyday from the mid 1970’s through the 1980’s. I recall that it was primarily a dancing music that was hip for a lot of young fans of a druggie inclination. I also remember that its female leader was Donna Summer, “the disco queen.” That was just about all the advanced knowledge I brought to “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” now at the Nederlander Theatre.
After sitting through about 1 hour and 45 uninterrupted singing and dancing that celebrated the queen, I decided that Summer was a terrific singer and a very nice human being who deserved a musical more accomplished than what is now touring the United States. Not that “Summer” is without merit. The show divides Summer’s life among three performers, called in chronological order—Diva Donna (the master of ceremonies), Duckling Donna (Summer as a girl), and Disco Donna (Summer when she ruled the disco roost)
The show review Summer’s life from her girlhood to her death in 2012 at the age of 63. Her life apparently had its ups and downs, sexual abuse as a child, successes and failures in her love life, and a strong advocate of the equal rights for underpaid and overworked women in the music business. But mostly Summer made lots of hit records that made her a wealthy international star.
The book for “Summer” has been written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff (who also directs). Their narrative is performed within scenery designs by Robert Brill and they combine with the book to tell a story that is mostly flat and flavorless. The set is over spacious and abstract, denying the audience clear cut references to the time and place of the action (discounting blah titles that occasionally flash above the stage). There are some scenes that take place in Munich, where Summer hit the success button in 1975. But not enough is made of that career turning point and the German accents by the American actors are laughable.
The choreography by award winner Sergio Trujillo is generic disco and with the exception of the hot finale “Last Dance” the dances never ignite with the kind of energy and sizzle that made disco so popular to do or to watch. The show is outfitted with a giant wardrobe of flashy costumes designed by Paul Tazewell but they break no new ground in originality in a show that cries for eye-boggling outfits. Sean Nieuwenhuis designed the projections, which run to ecessively colorful landscapes and especially portraits and abstractions that look like student attempts at the German expressionism of the early 20th century.
The cast runs to an abundant 19 singers and dancers who support the three Divas. Most play male characters but on checking the playbill I saw that more than half of the cast are females playing males. The performers, male and female, are talented for sure, but the switches in sexual identity seem, arbitrary, raising questions that are never addressed. Summer’s sexuality isn’t questioned, her quantity of husbands and lovers indicating she was straight as an arrow.
A good word needs to be spoken in favor of the five piece band led by conductor/keyboardist Amanda Morton. The group captures the disco sound at its most hard swinging..
But after this dispiriting survey of the show’s unexceptional physical appearance, it’s a pleasure to get to the musical’s good stuff, namely the performances by Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna), Alex Hairston (Disco Donna), and Olivia Elease Hardy (Duckling Donna). Each of the ladies possess unlimited charisma and stage presence. They dance superbly but their singing is the show. They bring down the house with their stratospheric volume, their range, their expressiveness, and their genius at selling each number like it comes from the heart and soul as well as the larynx and diaphram.
Alex Hairston is the most brilliant singer I have heard on a musical stage in years. Broadway producers should be rushing for her with open arms. That isn’t to discount the splendid singing from Williamson and Hardy. Rarely has a Chicagoland audience had the opportunity to listen to three finer voices. And all three can act, too.
The glaring gulf between the brilliant musical element in the show and the uninspired and occasionally boring and incomprehensible book defies explanation. Is this the Des McAnuf who helped shape “Jersey Boys” into one of the great musical song and book shows of the new millennium?
We have been exposed in recent years to an excess of musical biographies, most of them living up to their derogatory label of “juke box musicals” that try to make a buck off the show’s hit songs. Occasionally, we get a bull’s-eye like ”Jersey Boys” and the Carole King tribute “Beautiful.” So it can be done. On the evidence of the “Summer” book, the artist didn’t lead a life sufficiently diverse and exciting to sustain an evening long musical. The show’s artistic brain trust might have better served the audiences and the box office by presenting the three Divas and the cream of the ensemble, backed by the disco band, in a concert version of the show. The most successful moments in the musical were the powerhouse renditions of “MacArthur Park,” “The Last Dance,” “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls,” and “Hot Stuff.” An evening devoted to Summer’s biggest hits delivered in inspired interpretations by Williamson, Hairston, and Hardy would disarm all criticism. Still, there is enough of the musical magic supplied by the three Divas to sustain a tolerant audience of disco and Summer fans.
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” gets a rating of.
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” runs through February 23 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $27 to $110. Call (800) 775-2000 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.