*Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,* 4/5/18
Dale and I saw *Summer: The Donna Summer Musical* on 4/5/18.
I was surprised how much I loved it, I was grinning like an idiot throughout the show.
We saw one of the first previews, and I was a little worried that the show opened with the director, Des McAnuff, coming out onstage, welcoming us to the show, and giving us two warnings:
The show has no intermission, so if you need to use the bathroom, go now and skip his speech.
They’re still figuring out what they’re doing, so if there’s a train wreck, forgive them and have faith that the problem will get cleared up in later performances.
My reaction to these two warnings:
I used the bathroom at the restaurant.
Who doesn’t love a good train wreck?
Am I really telling another story about Maria Callas? Callas scholar John Ardoin wrote the copy for a fabulous coffee table book of photographs showing Callas’s career at La Scala. He said this about a production of *Barber of Seville* (I’m paraphrasing): “If there’s one thing a La Scala audience loves more than a triumph, it’s a fiasco.” So yeah baby, bring on the train wreck!
Well, I guess we were fortunate that there was no such trouble in the performance we saw. Not only did the performers and the crew know exactly what they were doing at all times, but more importantly, the creators of the show knew what they were doing, what they wanted to say, what the show was, and what it wasn’t. It was a feel good jukebox musical with a tenuous connection to the life story of Donna Summer. I felt the show succeeded where *Mamma Mia!* had failed - - *Mamma Mia!* had a similarly beloved catalog of pop songs and they built a really dippy story around it, trying to give the songs added meaning and impact. *Summer* used the story to simply move from song to song. Yes, there was a story, and it had a fair amount of drama, but it never pretended to be the driving force of the show. It was the songs that drove the show.
And what incredible songs! I had no idea how much I loved Donna Summer, I’m sure my husband will be VERY tired of hearing “Heaven Knows” within the week.
The creators of the show did something very clever - - they divided the role of Donna among three actors:
Duckling Donna was played by Storm Lever. This is Donna as a girl. Lever did a good job, but didn't really have much to do.
Disco Donna was played by Ariana DeBose. This was Donna as a young woman, at the peak of her popularity. DeBose was my favorite of the three Donnas, she’s a great dancer and her somewhat angular voice was perfect for the songs.
Diva Donna was played by Tony winner LaChanze. She also played Donna’s mother in some scenes. She embodied the strength of Summer and her singing had a gospel realness.
A few highlights: DeBose’s dancing knocked me out in “Heaven Knows.” “Enough is Enough” was transformed from a duet for Summer and Barbra Streisand to a duet for Disco Donna and Diva Donna. The amusing staging conceit had a strong *Police Woman* vibe, and any reference to the divine Angie Dickinson is sure to be a hit with me.
The audience cheered when “On the Radio” started, they recognized the intro. The audience was one of the highlights of the show, they were totally into it. “She Works Hard For the Money” was the biggest show-stopping number, it was coursing with female power.
Everything about the show was first class - - the set, costume, and lighting design, and especially the choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Those dancers were turning the shit OUT.
Here's Dale's take on the show:
They managed to successfully move away from the tone of her illness and death by jumping back to 1979's "Hot Stuff," and end the show with "Last Dance," both of which were uplifting and joyous.
The narrative importantly acknowledged but didn't dwell too long on two major events in her post 1978-79 hey day years: her becoming a born again Christian and when in Ohio at a concert she said "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve", the latter of which really isolated her from the gay community for years.
I heard her interviewed about what she was doing to herself during the "Love to Love You Baby" recording. She said that she was fully clothed sitting on a stool and that her hand was on her knee the whole time.
* * *
But I was a little disappointed that the show didn’t answer my number one question: Who left the damn cake out in the rain?