Theater review by Adam Feldman
Heaven knows what the creators of Summer are thinking, if any thought at all has gone into this disco dud of a show. Three talented and blameless women—LaChanze, Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever—play the late Donna Summer at different stages of her life in a tacky, sub-Vegas jukebox biomusical that draws from the singer’s groovy catalog of hits, including “I Feel Love,” “MacArthur Park,” “On the Radio” and “Last Dance.” At its most watchable, the show plays like a barely dramatized adaptation of Summer’s Spotify and Wikipedia pages. But when it’s bad, it’s so, so bad.
Director Des McAnuff ably steered the Four Seasons musical Jersey Boys but is less adept with just Summer. Nearly two dozen songs are crammed into this intermissionless 100-minute survey, which relies heavily on narration to yank us through a blanched account of the diva’s rise from humble beginnings in Boston to sex-symbol stardom in the Studio 54 era (with a dozy nod to her subsequent years as a born-again Christian); there is also a smattering of bathetic TV-movie dialogue. (Summer, on leaving her baby daughter to be raised by her parents: “Why is there always a price?”) The general level of befuddled kitsch is raised by the bizarre background presence of a nearly all-female ensemble, which spends much of the show in boxy drag-king suits and clumpy short wigs. By the time we reach the halfway mark of “Enough Is Enough”—cued by an out-of-nowhere scene of domestic violence, in which Summer slams her abusive boyfriend’s hands in a bright-white piano (before the police burst in, yelling, “Police!”)—we’ve had quite enough already, thank you. Not even “Hot Stuff” can survive this hot mess.
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (Broadway). Music and lyrics by various writers. Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff. Directed by McAnuff. With LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, Storm Lever. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.