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A CurtainUp Review

It was a great party. And I wasn't just at the party. . .— Diva Donna
I was the party. — all three Donnas.
The 3 Donnas and Ensemble (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Twenty-three songs from Queen of Disco Donna Summer's catalogue of hits. . .three Donnas plus almost twenty ensemble members to deliver them with non-stop bounce and disco glitter. . . just enough of this superstar's personal story to present it as a musical rather than a straight concert.

What more could a disco music enthusiast and fan of Summer's music want? After all, since the Disco Queen isn't around any more, you couldn't wish for better than La Chanze, The Color Purple's original Celie, as this trio's Diva Donna and Adina DeBose from Bronx Tale as a sizzly Disco Donna. And with Des McAnuff and Serge Trujillo who established the gold standard for juke box musicals with Jersey Boys again directing and choreographing, could this break the jukesical genre's streak of ho-hum shows and be a win-win-win WOW?

Well, if you go by the Donna Summer die-hards filling the orchestra and balcony seats in the huge Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Summer is indeed a hit. But if you want more than a Vegas style concert interspersed with inconsequential and often confusing biographical tidbits (glad and sad alike glossed over and the unflattering incidents awkwardly sanitized), Summer is likely to be a long 100 minutes and, yes, another ho-hum biographical romp through a popular musician's catalogue.

To be fair, the two main Donnas and the less often on scene Storm Lever's Little Duckling are terrific. LaChanze is a commanding actress as well singer, and on several occasionally seamlessly doubles as Summer's mother Mary. Ariana DeBoss is more than up to her Disco Diva's doing the show's heaviest lifting. Her dancing is as good as her singing. And Storm Lever does a fine job as Donna in her earliest gigs at home and in church. To borrow from "She Works Hard for the Money" which was one of Summer's major top of the charts tunes and is this show's big show stopper, these Donnas sure work hard for the money — and the applause and enthusiastic cheers.

Of course fans will love hearing so many of these songs (23 in all) within the framework of a Broadway theater setting. If you're less sentimental about the disco era and unfamiliar with this music, hearing it and seeing the enthusiasm all around the theater will make you better understand why these songs still seem to make everyone want to get up and dance. Actually Diva Donna invites everyone to do just that in her introductory "The Queen Is Back."

Maybe if Donna Summer hadn't succumbed to lung cancer and could have continued working with Des McAnuff on her own concept for a biomusical (her intended title was Ordinary Girl), Summer could have had more substance. But given the decision to focus on what's more important to the target audience than an authentic book musical — the music— the 100 minute length apparently made more sense than what a genuine book musical calls for (Jersey Boys ran 2 1/2 hours with an intermission).

That left McAnuff to sandwich that big song menu and Donna's journey through an all too brief but success and trouble filled personal life and career into a really tight package. Add to that plenty of dance numbers. The result is that the the trio who collaborated on the book — Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff— isn't nearly as successful as the trio of stand-ins for Donna Summer. Except for a few amusing interchanges between Disco Donna and the various men ruling her career, much of the dialogue is rather pedestrian.

The libretto just doesn't hang together smoothly or clearly. Serious issues like childhood and sexual abuse and cancer are glossed over without leaving an emotional impact, empowerment issues involving her career are likely to leave many viewers confused about who all the people involved are.

While it's nice to see some gender equality issues addressed with an all-but-one female orchestra, a unisex dance ensemble and women playing some of the male roles, it all comes off somewhat premeditated — a ploy to gain praises for being on board with #TimesUp. The close to the end attempt to rewrite Summer's unfortunate anti-Gay comment during the AIDS crisis by actually turning her into a champion for sex and gender equality is a downright indulgence in President Trump's style of truth telling.

I'm a great admirer to the contributions projection and video designers have made to the theater. But the video designs on constantly moving panels in Summer are a case of too much of a good thing. A segment showing Donna queening it at an easel projects some interesting art work but sheds little light on how that aspect of her talent was developed.

No complaints about Mr. Trujillo's choreography and Paul Tazwell's glittery costumes. But the dance routines do get to be more than a little repetitive. That said Summer does end on a rousing note with "Hot Stuff" and the "Last Dance" that nudged even me out of my seat.

Song List

The Queen Is Back
I Feel Love
Love to Love You Baby
I Remember Yesterday
On My Honor
Faster and Faster to Nowhere
White Boys
MacArthur Park
Heaven Knows
No More Tears (Enough is Enough)
Pandora's Box
On the Radio
I Love You
Bad Girls
She Works Hard for the Money
Dim All the Lights
I Believe in Jesus
Unconditional Love
To Turn the Stone
Stamp Your Feet
Friends Unknown
Hot Stuff
Last Dance

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Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff
Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others.
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Cast: LaChanze (Diva Donna and her mother), Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna), Storm Lever (Duckling Donna),Aaron Krohn (Neil Bogart), Ken Robinson (Andrew Gaines), Jared Zirilli (Bruce Sudano)
Ensemble: Angelica Beliard, Mackenzie Bell,Kaleigh Cronin, Kimberly Dodson,Anissa Felix, Drew Wildman Foster,Kendal Hartse, Afra Hines,Jenny Laroche, Wonu Ogunfowora, Rebecca Riker, Christina Aco
sta, Jessica Rush, and Harris M. Turner.
Music supervised by Ron Melrose
Scenic design by Robert Brill
Costumes by Paul Tazewell
Lighting by Howell Binkley
Sound by Gareth Owen
Projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis
Wig and Hair design by Charles LaPonte
Fight Direction by Steve Rankin
Story Consultant: Bruce Sudano
Orchestrations: Bill Brendle & Ron Melrose
Music Coordinator: John Miller
Music Director: Victoria Theodore
Stage Director: Andrew Neal
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Lunt Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street
From 3/28/18; Opening 4/23/18; closing 12/30/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/25/18 press performance

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