Monday, May 07, 2018

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Sometimes, it's genuinely unfair when shows on Broadway flop. Countless worthwhile productions close in debt due to poor timing, a few weak links, material that's too dark or sophisticated or sad to lure mainstream audiences, not enough money to attract audiences in the first place. These poor, innocent, not-all-bad flops are somehow even more heartbreaking when compared with shows that are totally, astoundingly, mesmerizingly terrible in so many ways you lose count--especially when such shows do surprisingly well, at least at the outset. Which brings me to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, the title of which, now that I think about it, says a lot about the production. What the hell does summer have to do with anything, or are we not referencing the season? If we aren't, why bother to mention the woman's stage name twice? Couldn't anyone have come up with a more creative, less repetitive title--maybe one that draws on her songs or legacy? The Queen of Disco? Or Hot Stuff, or Bad Girls, or, hell, Dim All the Lights Sweet Darling 'Cause Tonight It's All About Reenacting Donna Summer's Life in the Dumbest Ways Possible, But At Least the Songs Are Catchy? Because I'm on a roll here, I'm going to toss one out that I think fits the show best: Someone Left the Cake in the Rain. You know, cuz it's a soggy mess. Get it? Get it? Get it?

Kevin Berne
Look, I know, slamming an entertainment product that people work hard on for a long time is cheap and easy. And truly, I'd hold back and be a lot nicer about this one, but Summer was created by a group of very accomplished, ludicrously established dudes who know from Broadway--Des McAnuff, Sergio Trujillo, the effing Dodgers, for pity's sake--and who, I assume, will live to see another day and better shows. I don't feel terribly bad for them for having spawned this disaster, especially since it's just so insulting in its half-assedness. Also, the show appears to be raking it in for now; to me, this implies that plenty of gullible people will shell out enormous buckage to sit for just over ninety minutes in a big shiny theater and come away impressed because some familiar songs are performed by a cast that, as a group, is curiously moving in its ability to look like they give a flying fuck about what the hell they're doing up on the stage eight times a week. It's not easy, I imagine: the only thing the creative team seems to have agreed on with this show is that a musical about Donna Summer really, really needs lots of blue lighting and the excessive use of hydraulic lifts.

Summer is in many ways derivative of McAnuff's more creative, compelling, and uncondescending Jersey Boys. The creative team seems here to have decided to borrow amply from that show in terms of structure, look, and design, but the result is less smart and sharp, and more like someone took a lot of pasta, dyed it a variety of cool blue hues, threw it against a sleekly-lit wall, and then moved it around on platforms that sank below the stage and back up again, as if constant movement would maybe trick the audience into believing that this production actually works

Good ideas abound, sure, but something--or a lot of things--seem to have gotten lost between page and stage. There are, for example, three perfectly fine actors portraying Donna Summer at various points in her life. But what the hell with the names and who is playing whom at any given time? Storm Lever plays Summer as a child--she's listed in the program as "Duckling Donna," I think because there was some conversation about the ugly duckling story in the show, but whatever, I wasn't paying attention at that point. Ariana DeBose plays "Disco Donna," which I guess would be Donna in the 1970s. This was confusing, though, because for some reason, many of the '70s scenes are aesthetically reminiscent of the '80s, which makes me feel incredibly old, and also pissed off that no one on the creative team could bother to remember that neon lighting and Robert Palmer videos were '80s phenomena, not '70s phenomena, for fuck's sake. Anyway, the great LaChanze, who deserves way better than this, is "Diva Donna," because I suppose "Born-Again Christian Donna Who Gives a Farewell Concert and Looks Back on Her Life Before She Dies, or Maybe It's Supposed to Be After She's Dead But Either Way, There's More Hydraulic Lifting" is way too wordy. Whatever; the names of the three Donnas at different ages is consistent with the fact that nothing at any age seems remotely clear, consistent, or well-developed. Sometimes La Chanze plays Summer; sometimes she plays her mother; sometimes Storm Lever plays Donna's daughter. You'd think the creators would give the poor women a break and hire more people so Donna Summer wouldn't have to play her own mom and/or kid all the damn time.

Among the many other things that are frustrating about this musical is that Donna Summer actually seems to have lived a pretty interesting life, which I genuinely would have liked to know more about. As it stands, fleeting, thin scenes touch very superficially on the fact that she was, at various points, sexually abused by her priest, the witness to a murder, a wild bohemian expat in Germany, an abused girlfriend, a drug addict, a disco queen, an ardent feminist, an open-minded embracer of difference who reigned supreme at Studio 54, a born-again Christian, a homophobe, a painter, a devoted wife, a loving mother. Any one of those things, really, could be enough for a musical. But so much of her life story is here told through fleeting narration in place of action or nuanced scene work, and the result feels flat and forced for all the effort. There's no depth or exploration to anything presented onstage, which makes the whole show seem manipulative and cheap. Worst of all, notwithstanding the manipulative and bullshitty scene excusing Summer's homophobic comments as misunderstood jokes, is the decision by the all-male creative team to capitalize on the current women's movement by featuring an almost-but-not-quite-all-female cast, which makes no sense at all. Why are chicks playing dudes sometimes, but not at other times, and why are there dudes in the cast at all, and who the hell came up with the idea that Donna Summer's one late-career hit about women's work made her some kind of ardent feminist warrior? Are you kidding me? And truly, how dare you?

Again, the songs are fine. It was nice to hear them again, even if some of them are remarkably stupidly staged. It's an example of how half-assed this show is that "Dim All the Lights" is re-envisioned as a funeral dirge for Neil Bogart, and that this is nowhere near the worst idea. I'd vote for the car chase as even dumber, but then, I just don't have the energy to revisit the musical ever again to assess all the dumbness more carefully.

I've been chided in the past by friends in the business for expressing any pity at all for working actors, but truly, I feel for this cast, I hope they're paid well, and I hope something better comes along and hires them all away from this mess. They're hard for the money.

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