Monday, February 24, 2020

Last Dance: 'Summer' a Shimmering If Shallow Salute to the Queen of Disco -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sunmer: The Donna Summer Musical
National Tour
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago 
Run Ended; tour continues

When I was around 10, before--and even after--impudent voices would suggest that "Disco Sucks" or intimate that certain songs should only appeal to certain kinds of people, Donna Summer ruled the airwaves with several catchy singles.

And though I don't think I've ever owned any of her music, I can't deny that tunes like such as "Last Dance," "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff" and "On the Radio" have have long conjured a sentimental smile...and even some rather oafish booty shaking.

The singer certainly had enough hits and--though I never knew much about it--sufficient drama in her life to make for a jukebox musical. And in the spring of 2018, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical bowed on Broadway.

It would only last until the end of that year, and is now on a tour that began last fall, runs through September and just finished two weeks in Chicago.

For the nearly 20 years I've been a Broadway in Chicago subscriber, I've always gotten tickets for the first Tuesday of a show's run. But for whatever odd reason, I was given the closing Sunday night for Summer.

Perhaps BIC thought I'd want to be present for the "Last Dance" in town.

Thus, this review won't do much good for theatergoers in Chicago, wondering if they should adorn their disco garb.

Theoretically, some could catch Summer this summer in Detroit or Minneapolis, but--especially relative to time, effort and cost--I think watching the real Donna on YouTube would be more satisfying than a road trip.

Which isn't to suggest those local to upcoming tour stops should stay away from Summer.

With some strong touring talent, the show makes for sufficiently satisfying--at times even superb--entertainment.

If you love Donna Summer, you may well relish how the 100-minute piece pays tribute.

But you'll only get some bullet-point biography--rather than real insights into her ups and downs--and true musical theater lovers will recognize why this is a rather routine jukebox musical, and far from tremendous theater.

If you've seen the far superior Jersey Boys or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, or perhaps the more similar Cher Show or On Your Feet! about Gloria Estefan--all "jukebox" musicals that are about famed musicians, rather than using their songs to tell other stories (a la Mamma Mia)--Summer's narrative approach will seem rather similar.

Eventual superstar shows considerable talent at a young age, gets discovered, makes great music, becomes famous, quarrels with record executives, hits a few speed bumps and--sometimes, as in Donna Summer's case--dies. (She passed in 2012 at the age of 63.)

Embodying the star onstage, sometimes simultaneously, are mature Diva Donna (Dan'yelle Williamson), twentysomething Disco Donna (Alex Hairston) and teenage Ducking Donna (Cameron Anika Hill, understudying for Olivia Elease Hardy at Sunday night's performance).

With Hairston and Williamson doing the bulk of the lead singing, all three women are demonstrably good.

After Hairston begins "MacArthur Park" by herself, impressively, Summer's first #1 hit becomes a showcase group number, while the middle Disco Donna also dazzles on a moving "Dim All the Lights" and the Diva, Williamson, sparkles on "Friends Unknown."

Though all the hits you might expect--including the songs I cited at top, plus "I Feel Love," "Love to Love," "Bad Girls," "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)" and "She Works Hard for the Money"--are represented, it's to the show's credit that I enjoyed some Donna Summer songs that were unfamiliar before a bit of Spotifamiliarization in recent days.

Along with "Dim All the Lights" and "Friends Unknown," these included "Heaven Knows" and "I Love You." (As a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, I was hoping I might hear "Protection," which he wrote for Donna.)

But while Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, who are co-credited as Summer's book (i.e. script) writers well-chose the songs to include, the superficiality of the narrative made me think they simply made a list of biographical factoids and just plugged them in one-by-one, in roughly chronological order.

While this probably sounds like what any biographical jukebox musical should do and has done, the problem is that even extremely weighty matters are often handled in mere seconds and then discarded.

Arguing with her parents, check. Dropping out of high school, check. Being molested as a church singer, check. Landing a role in a tour of Hair, check. Meeting Giorgio Moroder (interestingly played by a woman, Kyli Rae; several other roles are also gender fluid), check. Getting married, check. Having a baby, check. Becoming a superstar, check. Taking pills, check. Finding a new love, check. Being beaten by her ex-husband, check.  Suing her record company, check. Suffering a loss and singing at a funeral, check. Contemplating suicide, check. Stepping away from the spotlight, check. Dedicating herself to motherhood, check. Finding Jesus, check. Getting a terminal illness, check.

I've seen so many jukebox musicals that I think I can imagine the creative debates among those making them:

Do we make it biographical or tell another story with the songs?

If the former, do we cover the entire life or focus on a specific compelling period?

If the former, do we make it primarily chronological or bounce all around?

Do we keep the storytelling rather staid so as not to interfere with the famous songs, or do we really ratchet up the pathos in parts to provide dramatic heft?

And, honestly, I don't condemn Summer: The Donna Summer Musical's creators for routinely making the first, more routine choice. The songs shine and that's obviously what has put fannies in the seats, and occasionally up & dancing.

Heaven knows, everyone onstage works hard for the money, and there are many moments to love to love.

Simply as a fun night out, it's a disco ball.

But as a holistic work of theater, Summer just isn't hot stuff. 

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

Nice run with the last three sentences of the review. Nicely played!