In a crowded field of contenders for jukebox musicalization, Donna Summer doesn’t just stand out, she hustles to the front of the line.
Summer co-wrote and recorded some of the definitive pop hits of the 1970s and ‘80s, so the score is a guaranteed draw, and her fan base has aged to perfection: We’re tenderly nostalgic, financially settled and, despite a twinge here and there, still willing to get up and dance.
Furthermore, Summer’s life story ticks all the bio-musical boxes: Childhood trauma. Meteoric rise to fame. (Her sexy breakout hit “Love to Love You Baby” earned her the rhapsodic if condescending sobriquet “The Queen of Disco,” which she spent the rest of her career trying to transcend.) Drug addiction. Star-crossed love. Exploitation and betrayal by the music industry. The death of disco. Born-again Christianity. Lung cancer. And before her death in 2012, one last comeback — older but wiser, rocking a jumpsuit.
With songs this catchy, a musical’s book doesn’t have to be great. Or at least this is the calculus that I ascribe, perhaps unjustly, to the creators of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” which just opened at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre after running on Broadway in 2018. I can’t know for certain that “Summer” book writers Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff (who also directed) looked at one another over the adding machine where they were totting up future ticket sales and wondered, “Does the audience really need a coherent narrative when ‘Bad Girls’ is up next?”
Based on the show they came up with, I can’t completely rule out that scenario.
Three actresses share the role of Donna, a familiar strategy (also employed by another jukebox, “The Cher Show”) that sounds like it might lead to a temporal paradox but turns out to be a smart allocation of resources in cases of stars who contain multitudes. The Donnas are labeled in the program as Diva Donna (Dan’yelle Williamson), fiftyish, our narrator; Duckling Donna (Olivia Elease Hardy), a teen soloist in her church choir; and the relentless mid-career hit-machine Disco Donna (Alex Hairston).
All three Donnas have great stage presence and powerful, soaring voices, and the fluid way they interact and trade off storytelling duties is one of the production’s strengths. All recognizably Donna, they look sufficiently different so that they can anchor us in time even when the narrative is jumping all over the place.
The zany chronology wouldn’t be so puzzling if it served some apparent purpose. As it is, the book feels as though it’s being developed on the fly by panicked writers shouting into headsets backstage: “We forgot to mention the pastor’s sexual abuse! Oh, and can we shoehorn in an apology to the LGBTQ community for Donna’s homophobic comments of 1983?”
Alas, this “apology” scene can’t be excused as a last-minute addition to “Summer.” It was mentioned in reviews from the musical’s 2017 tryout at La Jolla Playhouse. Not only is an exculpatory soliloquy odd in a bio-musical, but this one comes across as a flat-out lie. Diva Donna informs us that she once told a concert audience that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” because she was frustrated that the male fans’ voices were drowning out the women.
To be fair, the musical presents other events in Donna’s life in nearly as haphazard and flippant a tone. We are repeatedly primed for dramatic conflict, only to watch the situation dismissed with a joke. Problem solved! Next song!
When Duckling Donna calls her strict, churchgoing parents from Munich, Germany, to confess that she’s joined the touring cast of “Hair,” a showdown seems imminent. “Don’t eat the sausage!” her father growls. Beat. “It’s the wurst!” One of the themes of “Summer” is that Donna would have liked to be taken more seriously. Moments like this don’t help.
But at least there are fabulous sets and costumes and choreography, right?
Er. The set (by Robert Brill) is bare, a vast no man’s land — is it meant to represent the inside of a jukebox? — that is dominated by Sean Nieuwenhuis’ video projections, which are often simply colored squares: Green. Now orange.
The space dwarfs the ensemble, almost all women, who tend to dress in drag (costumes by Paul Tazewell) when they’re backing a Donna. I can only surmise that this choice was made to evoke the mystery and androgyny of the New York disco scene. (Or does it have something to with Donna as a symbol of female empowerment? Only a few men are in the cast; many male roles are played by women.)
When you’re in the mood for feathers and stilettos, it’s hard to be satisfied with double-breasted suits and briefcases. Even the Donnas’ outfits seem subdued, in a limited range of colors. Although Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is funky and angular, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough of it.
None of these cavils stopped me from standing up and cheering, with tears in my eyes, for “Last Dance.” “Summer” does succeed in evoking the triumph of its subject’s outsize talent and the poignancy of her loss, even though, heaven knows, it’s not the way it could be.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 24
Info: (800) 982-2787, HollywoodPantages.com or Ticketmaster.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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