“Summer – The Donna Summer Musical” At Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Saturday, December 22nd, 2018, Reviewed
Donna Summer is no Cher, though within whatever limits you might provide after that, she is much more influential than Cher: everything Cher did was unique to Cher, everything Donna did was a signpost for women of color in pop as it stands in 2018. Since the most important thing Donna did for disco was add anonymity to Giorgio Moroder’s disco as synth arbitrator, at the time it seemed… a position anyone Moroder anointed could have done because it was meant to be not about the singing. If you listen to Calvin Harris, Avicii, any top EDM producer, the template is less synth and beats and more an invisible vocalist who is shrouded by the producer as one more element in the mix. That is Casablanca Records, that is disco: everything is in league with the producer to get you dancing. Donna would eventually leap over these restrictions to become a hugely successful pop diva before becoming born again, slighting her gay audience, having more hits, and dying of breast cancer at the age of 63. And it is these very limitations that makes “Summer” better than “The Cher Show”.
Stripped to its essence, “Summer” is a bright and spangly thing with some restructuring of the concept behind the Boston middle class girl who went to Germany and got discovered. For instance, the orgasmic “Love To Love You Baby” is recorded, here, in the studio, in the dark, because Donna was to shy to sing it while Moroder and Pete Bellotti recorded her. It is a winning moment. There are many winning moments, as the paint by numbers bio appears in the least detailed of sketches and hang together as an excuse for songs from the 1970s – 1990s to be performed with anonymous verve by the three ages of Donna, performed very well by LaChanze as Diva Donna (she won a Tony for “The Color Purple” in 2006), Storm Lever as the young Donna, and best of all Disco Diva Ariana Debose, who was in the original production of “Hamilton” and can dance and sing very well
The hits just keep on coming, and while “Dim All The Nights” as Neil Bogart’s funeral song is a leap we don’t wanna take, the sheer accumulation of songs is impressive and that’s while many, many deep album tracks are missing., this is a woman who dropped double albums like it was, wow, like it was 2018. The dancing is fine, the three Donna’s aren’t married to their roles and double up (Diva Donna also plays Donna’s mother) and while there is little real difference between the Donna who sang “White Boys” in the touring musical of “Hair,” there doesn’t much have to be.
Once you are past the disco years it is all headlights as Donna returns to the Church, gets more deeply involved in her three daughters lives, denies completely being anti-Gay after her “it is Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” comment destroyed the base, and finally ends up in a doctors office. They keep “Last Dance” for the end. The decor is standard issue, instant change-o to dancefloor, and Des McAnuff, who directed “Jersey Boys,” does what he can but what neither he nor various Donnas can do, is give weight to a lightweight book.
Nevermind, the hits keep coming and while it may not have much in the way of drama, I hope they tour it everywhere. I didn’t expect much, and I got enough. “Summer” closes on December 30th, that gives you four days…