If that’s Donna Summer, then this must be the late 70s and early 80s, the era of disco dancing in the clubs and roller skating at the Roxy. (And let’s not even talk about the fashions.)
But you won’t get much of a sense the times in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” a narrow-minded jukebox musical that views its titular heroine in a vacuum. The great songs are pretty much all here: “Love to Love You Baby,” “White Boys,” “MacArthur Park,” “Heaven Knows,” “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance,” to skim a few titles off the top. LaChanze is here, too, and in glorious voice, along with a thin biographical book that hardly does justice to Summer’s life or her music.
There’s no sense of what Summer represented to the boys and girls madly dancing the night away to her heart-thumping rhythms and soaring vocals. She was the affirmation of life, of music, of dancing in the face of existential fear. If “Angels in America” (also now on Broadway) was the fearsome death mask of those times, then Diva Donna was the heartbeat of life — not that any of this comes through in this anemic musical.
LaChanze rocked “The Color Purple,” which won her an acting Tony in 2006. She still has great stage presence and, of course, that roof-raising voice. But sharing the stage with the pre-teen Duckling Donna (Storm Lever, dull) and Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose, duller) doesn’t triple her strength, which seems to have been the intention, because the other singers are no match for her.
So, despite some good songs and uplifting vocals from her backup singers, LaChanze is pressed to carry the whole show on her back. She doesn’t even get a break from costumer Paul Tazewell, who has put her into some garish frocks, or from wig designer Charles G. LaPointe, whose hairdos look downright trashy. With her untamed locks and bloodsucker-red lipstick, Donna Summer had a look that was dramatically vivid but not cheap, a distinction that seems to have eluded the designers.
What does work is the costuming of female singer-dancers in men’s drag, slick suits with clean lines and nice tailoring. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo gives those long-limbed beauties sexy moves that are very much appreciated in this under-choreographed show. Drag not only looks good on stage, it also faithfully recalls the disco era, which was all about transgression, sexual and otherwise, and lots of cross-dressing.
Des McAnuff, who directed the show when it premiered at La Jolla, does the directing here, too. Giving the designers completely free rein may have been a mistake, but he shows more skill in setting up the songs and giving his diva the platform to deliver them. The domestic scenes written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and McAnuff, however, die the death, crushed beneath boulders of inane dialogue. Mommy was loving, Daddy was strict, and the rest is all boilerplate.
“People say I sing like a police siren.” What’s that? A funny line? Here’s another: “On a good day, I felt like Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ On a bad day, I felt like Judy Garland — period.” Cherish those lines, because the laughs are few and far between.
The song lyrics, not the spoken dialogue, are what matter in this show. The lyrics of disco are the language of the late 70s and early 80s — manic, druggy, desperate for a good time. Summer and her music gave voice to that desperate, fearful, wonderful time when no one knew what was coming next, when everyone was determined to dance their fears away before the sun comes up and the “Last Dance” is over.