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Theatre in Review: Summer (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)

LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, Storm Lever. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Any show that stars LaChanze can't be all bad, although, in the case of Summer, it's not for lack of trying. The actress has been a joy to behold ever since her breakthrough appearance in Once on This Island in 1990; her trumpet-like voice was in place from the get-go, but along the way she has developed a sharp wit, a powerful presence, and the ability to lift the weakest material. As the mature Donna Summer -- the bio-musical's main conceit is that three ladies play the title role, at different stages of her life -- she is confronted by her adolescent self, who, gazing in awe, says to herself, "I just know she's everything I want to be." "Careful what you wish for," LaChanze replies, with a rueful look that implies volumes more than that tired line could ever suggest on its own. And when she tears into one of Summer's disco anthems, her voice cuts through Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose's orchestrations like a heat-seeking missile, leading to an explosion of applause.

This is good news, because Summer, the musical, needs every bit of stardust that it can muster. Diva Donna (LaChanze's) calls it "the concert of a lifetime," and, as descriptions go, it is all too accurate. Clearly aiming to be the next Beautiful, it is little more than a greatest-hits concert interrupted by lead-ins and crossovers that provide a skimpy, nuance-free outline of the singer's life. Indeed, it takes a studiedly evasive approach: This is the story of a woman who rocketed to fame by simulating twenty-two orgasms in a single number, who provided the soundtrack for gay life in the bad old days when promiscuity was termed a political act and the bathhouses were filled nightly, and who went through the crises -- substance abuse, fiscal problems, abusive lovers -- that plague so many pop stars -- and yet it is so blandly uplifting it might have been produced by the Methodist Church.

The book -- by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff -- brings up troubling issues only to drop them, preferring to hopscotch around the singer's life in nonlinear fashion, a bewildering approach that leaves one wondering if the playlist was assembled first and various scenes fitted around it. Summer's first husband passes by in such a flash you wonder how she managed to get pregnant. Talking about her use of the antidepressant Marplan, she confides, "Once you're on a rollercoaster, it's real hard to get off. Those little blue pills might slow it down for a while... but then they stop working." And that's it for that topic. By the time she is considering jumping out the window of her room at the Ritz, one might justifiably wonder what on earth is the matter. And, by the way, would a posh hotel really send one of the maids to talk a celebrity off the ledge?

In the most confounding bit, Summer admits in passing that, as a girl singing in her church choir, she was sexually abused. It went on for years, a fact that she kept from her parents out of fear that her father would seek homicidal revenge. It's telling that Summer, the musical, can't spare a minute to consider how this might have shaped some of her bad decisions, especially with men. Instead, it's followed by a comic scene about learning to drive in Los Angeles. Even more baffling is the fact that, across the entire evening, the word "gay" is never heard. Near the end, she admits to having remarked to an interviewer that "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" -- she couldn't even be original about it -- and, lamenting the firestorm that ensued, adds that she never judges anyone. Standing in front of three images of male couples, she says, "I lost many friends. We all did," at which point she could be talking about the Hong Kong flu, for all the candor displayed. She finishes up with "God made Adam and Steve and Eve and Louise, and everybody else," collects her applause, and moves on. The wholesale kicking-to-the-curb of her fanbase, without which she would never have gotten out of Boston, is the most cynical of the musical's manipulations. This in a show that pretends to be a feminist statement.

Well, you can enjoy the numbers, marveling at how, over a few years, Summer ground out so many insanely catchy disco standards. Even so, they are often put to strange use here. Presented with her infant daughter, she launches into "Love to Love You Baby" -- a number that, I'm sure we are all agreed, has little to do with motherhood. Asked to perform at the funeral of Neil Bogart, who engineered her stardom, she shows up in a black dress with a skirt slit up the middle and a ruffled hem that looks like just the thing to wear for last rites at Studio 54 -- and launches into the seduction ballad "Dim All the Lights." It is not reported if Bogart's family was comforted by this odd display. And in striving to faithfully reproduce the singer's hits, the creative team struggles to find theatrical uses for them. Except for "She Works Hard for the Money," cleverly woven around Summer's rebellion against Bogart (who played fast and loose with her money) and defection to David Geffen, the numbers are just there, rarely generating much excitement.

McAnuff, who also directed -- and who, fourteen years ago, presided over the much-more-honest Jersey Boys -- is at sea with this carefully scrubbed star tribute. Aside from LaChanze, Ariana DeBose is stylish and vocally adept as Summer during her Queen of Disco years, and Storm Lever, as the young Summer, does nicely with the gospel number "On My Honor." Aaron Krohn, who really should be appearing in a first-class Shakespeare or Shaw revival, is solid as Bogart and as one of Summer's abusive lovers. Ken Robinson is touching as the singer's devoutly religious father, who can't have been happy when hearing, say, "Bad Girls" or "I Feel Love." (LaChanze also plays Summer's mother, deftly.) Jared Zirilli is appealing as Bruce Sudano, her second husband, with whom she apparently enjoyed much happiness. Sudano is billed as story consultant, which may explain the squeaky-clean biographical approach.

Interestingly, a musical about one of the twentieth century's gaudiest decades -- the lights, the sound, the polyester! -- is rendered with a counterintuitive amount of restraint. Robert Brill's set consists of a black box through which slide any number of video panels for Sean Nieuwenhuis' projections, most of them images of Summer treated in Warhol-silkscreen fashion. When, near the end, the lighting designer, Howell Binkley, pulls out the big guns -- including several caged light bars, each complete with a red police light -- you realize how much the show has wanted a big dose of glitz all along. Paul Tazewell's costumes consign the most egregious of the era's fashion crimes to the chorus, which is ninety percent female. (Charles G. LaPointe's hair and wig designs, especially the epically teased coiffure for DeBose, vividly bring back the era's ultra-artificial styles.) If Gareth Owen's sound design sounds more processed than the best Broadway shows, well, this is the Donna Summer story.

Sadly, Summer died too young, from cancer, a fact that proves touching, even if you have to get through the number "Stamp Your Feet," in which Donna and her daughters, determined to face her illness with an optimistic attitude, kick up their heels in the oncology ward, earning a shush from the attending physician. But this is a silly, time-wasting exercise, a lazy man's Broadway musical that tries to coast entirely on a playlist of disco classics. LaChanze supporters of the world, unite: The star needs a worthy vehicle, pronto. -- David Barbour

(30 April 2018)

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