“It was a great party,” reminisces one of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’s three avatars for its central singer, near the end of its speedy 100 minutes. “And I wasn’t just at the party” — here, a number of my fellow audience members anticipated the sassy punch line and shouted along — “I was the party.”
No matter how much of an onstage bash is advertised, I’m inherently skeptical of jukebox musicals. Even as big commercial productions go, they can feel cynical and cash-grabby, like cruise line or theme park entertainment. Perhaps worse still, there’s always the risk that, structurally, they’ll feel painfully contrived: like a meal on one of those cooking shows where you have to work with a basket full of tricky, predetermined ingredients. Here! Turkish delight, frozen waffles, and sea urchin! Now make a delicious entrée!
But for fans of the artists that these shows celebrate, those ingredients are what matter. Presentation is a plus, but it’s not the draw. They’ve come for the music — and perhaps theatergoers like me have our own cynicism to reckon with in the face of a fan’s earnest euphoria. Whatever your personal taste, being surrounded by genuine excitement — by middle-aged women wearing sequined blouses actually standing up in a Broadway theater and joyfully shaking their booties during multiple slinky disco numbers — does a body good. That’s what’s currently happening in the Lunt-Fontanne, and thanks to the swift, smart construction of Summer, which neither overburdens its material nor overstays its welcome, it’s a pretty damn good time.
Co-written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and the production’s director Des McAnuff, Summer’s book is sometimes predictable, sometimes sentimental, and every so often pushes unsubtly on its central image (the idea of “fragments” of a life, which influences both scenic design and storytelling). But it’s also up-tempo, fluently interwoven with the show’s more than 20 songs, and often genuinely funny: Early in the show, an ensemble member playing the Italian producer Giorgio Moroder has a phone conversation with Neil Bogart (a swaggering Aaron Krohn), the head of a record label back in the states who’s hooked on young Donna’s sensuous early single “Love to Love You Baby.” As the song moans in the background, Bogart tells Moroder how much his L.A. club friends love the track: “I want you to make me a 25-minute mix,” he demands. “Are you on drugs?” asks Giorgio. Neil’s immediate, nonchalant answer: “Of course.” It’s the ’70s, y’all.
Summer is a bio-musical — a wiser decision by its creators than attempting to hang Donna Summer’s catalogue around some fictional plot. In another smart move, they’ve cast three actors, with three massive voices, to embody the Queen of Disco. There’s the feisty Storm Lever as “Duckling Donna,” the youngest version of the singer, who feels awkward and unattractive (that’s Duckling as in Ugly) unless she’s performing. There’s Ariana DeBose, a fierce dancer as well as a singer who can both belt and murmur beautifully, as “Disco Donna,” the 20-something-year-old singer whose dance-club hits made her a spangly superstar. And then there’s the majestic LaChanze (who won the 2006 Tony for The Color Purple) as the singer’s mature incarnation, “Diva Donna.” LaChanze — whose voice might in fact be able to bring plaster down from the ceiling — is our guide through the show. She welcomes us at the beginning (“What are y’all doin’ way up there? Is it that much cheaper?” she calls to the balcony), she tells us what we’re in for (“the concert of a lifetime,” which is actually a pretty good pun), and she reemerges throughout the action to offer perspective on the story her younger selves are busy living.
Of course, she also sings up a storm. Unsurprisingly, the greatest pleasure of Summer is listening to its leads — especially LaChanze and DeBose — make the walls quake. Indeed, the LED-paneled walls of Robert Brill’s modernist white box set feel responsive to the Donnas’ powerful belting. Almost constantly in motion, they shift and glide around the trio, flashing with an array of colors and patterns that makes the stage feel a bit like the inside of a Pac-Man arcade game — or perhaps like the flashy visual equivalent of Summer’s synthesizers.
Inside this pulsing color box the Donnas are working hard for the money, along with the support of a seemingly inexhaustible ensemble that’s made up, excitingly, almost entirely of women. Apart from Summer’s three leads, there are five men in the cast (playing the heroine’s father, various boyfriends, and important associates like Neil Bogart) and 15 women. And these women do everything. Not only are they a remarkable dance corps, tearing it up to Sergio Trujillo’s jet-fueled choreography — they also play all manner of characters, often strutting and kicking their way across the stage as men, decked out in costume designer Paul Tazewell’s garish ‘70s bell-bottomed suits and tinted sunglasses. (The impressive seven-piece band is also majority-female — watch for their acknowledgment in the curtain call, one of the coolest versions of that gesture I’ve seen in a while.)
“This may seem disingenuous coming from a middle-aged white guy like me,” says an actor playing Norman Brokaw, the agent who encouraged Summer to walk away from Bogart’s label, Casablanca Records, in 1980. “But the music business is dominated by white men. It’s time you took control of your life.” That actor is a young black woman wearing a slick suit and sitting behind a fancy desk. The line gets a big laugh, and it feels like a sharp little wink: Summer’s story — like the story of any artist dealing with the music industry’s power brokers in the 1970s and ‘80s — is going to be full of men. But her show doesn’t have to be. It can be, in the words of its own Diva Donna as she recalls the club scene she helped create, “a world of mystery and androgyny, blurring all the lines.” It can be a celebration of women, not just one woman. Debose’s Donna gets a prolonged cheer when, in answer to a reporter who’s poking into rumors about her dating life, she quips, “There’s also a rumor that I’m a man. But if that were true, I’d get paid more.”
What emerges from the conversation with Brokaw is Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” (it transitions straight out of “Bad Girls,” to the be-sequined audience-dancing-ladies’ infinite delight). In a burst of athletic briefcase-and-telephone choreography, the ensemble backs up Disco Donna as she bolts from Casablanca and sets out on her own. It’s probably the jazziest litigation has looked in a long time. When “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” the 1979 hit Summer originally recorded with Barbra Streisand, comes around, multiple Donnas let this anthem become a duet with the self. DeBose and LaChanze both rip into it during a sequence in which Debose’s Donna defies her abusive boyfriend, Gunther (also Krohn). This jealous lug has apparently followed the young Summer back to L.A. from Munich, where she met Giorgio Moroder and began her career. At the climax of “Enough is Enough” Debose knocks a gun out of the nasty Gunther’s hand and wallops him upside the head — with what? A fat, glossy coffee table book with her own glamour shot on the front. Disco Queen, 1; Dickhead, 0.
Summer has its dips. It’s really creepy to watch Lever sing the mournful “Pandora’s Box” in the context of young Donna’s abuse by her childhood preacher. And there’s a corny sequence when Disco Donna is facing some serious depression (not to mention an addiction to Marplan), and two of her sisters show up to encourage her to talk “to Mary.” No, not her mother (whose name is Mary and whose character LaChanze steps into as well), or to her sister, Mary Ellen, but to that Mary. Granted, Summer herself was a devout Christian, and the show earnestly includes her song “I Believe in Jesus,” but the dialogue to get us there could be less cringey.
All in all, though, Summer does well at moving us through both the bright and dark spots in its hero’s life, without stopping too long to dwell. Yes, it might feel odd at first to touch on subjects as heavy as cancer and abuse without really dropping a dramatic plumb line down. But McAnuff knows that his show isn’t going to support intense emotional spelunking. He keeps it straightforward and aware of its own limits — as LaChanze’s Donna does when she acknowledges and apologizes for some anti-gay remarks that caused a scandal and lost her more than a few fans in the ’80s. This combination of sincerity and swiftness feels true to the spirit of Summer herself. The singer, who died of cancer in 2012, at 63, reinvented her career more than once, laying the groundwork for artists like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. It’s easy to condescend to, but pop is a powerful thing. “For the longest time, people had me convinced there was something wrong with this music,” LaChanze’s Donna says at the show’s beginning, but, she adds, whatever else people are doing in a hundred years, “I do know they’re going to be dancing.” The happy, shiny shimmiers and shakers around me in the audience would, I think, agree.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.