Review: Hot Stuff Turns Cold in ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’

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Certainly Ms. Summer’s life merits a more sophisticated treatment. Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston in 1948, she sang in church, dropped out of high school to try her luck in New York and by 1968 was playing Sheila in the Munich company of “Hair.” While in Germany she not only married (briefly) the man who would provide her last name and first child but also met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who would produce 11 of her 20 albums. In 1975 they recorded the song “Love to Love You Baby,” which in a 17-minute, 22-orgasm dance mix became her first hit and made her world famous.

Photo

Ariana DeBose, center, and the ensemble performing “Bad Girls.”

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The story of Ms. Summer asking the two men to dim the lights and close their eyes while she writhes on the studio floor singing the hypersexed number is too good not to stage, and yet apparently not too good to stage poorly. The director Des McAnuff, who with Colman Domingo and Robert Cary also wrote the musical’s book, skitters away from it after about 10 seconds, just as the show over all skitters away from almost everything even slightly awkward or troubling — and thus interesting — about Ms. Summer’s life and career.

It totally botches, for instance, her relationship with the gay community, which instantly embraced her on the radio and the dance floor for reasons the show doesn’t explore. Comments that Ms. Summer later made about God not creating “Adam and Steve” (let alone others she denied making about AIDS as a punishment for sin) left many gay men feeling betrayed — a betrayal they attributed to her resurgent Christianity.

Rather than dramatizing this fascinating conflict head on, the musical brushes it aside as an ancient misunderstanding and uses Ms. Summer’s gay publicist as an alibi. (Singing “Friends Unknown,” she mourns his death to show she couldn’t have been homophobic.) It does not even mention her 1979 announcement that she was born again; she sings “I Believe in Jesus” instead.

Similarly, “Summer” sketches years of sexual abuse by her pastor with little more than a leer, a shoehorned number (“Pandora’s Box”) and a few vague remarks. It’s dramaturgy by song hook.

At the core of all of these missed opportunities is the split between Ms. Summer’s manufactured image as a sex goddess and her self-image as a good girl. The musical makes its only stab at conceptual expressiveness by dividing Ms. Summer into three avatars to theatricalize that split: the mature Diva Donna (LaChanze), the young adult Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose) and, a bit desperately, the preteen Duckling Donna (Storm Lever).

This is hardly new. “Lennon” gave us five John Lennons; “The Cher Show,” scheduled to open on Broadway in December, has three title characters. But as used in “Summer,” the triple casting comes off as a gimmick, possibly necessary to spare any one performer a grueling sing but always dissipating whatever narrative energy the authors manage to gin up.

Still, I welcomed the division, because the script is otherwise appallingly banal, taking as its format the line of least resistance: a “concert of a lifetime” in which Ms. Summer recalls her highs and lows. None of them, including a 1976 suicide attempt and a homicidal ex-boyfriend, are dwelled upon long enough to register.

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