The biographical jukebox musical — of which "Jersey Boys" provides a shining example, thanks to all the Brylcreem — is the cockroach of Broadway. It has a small head, a primitive nervous system and will probably outlast the apocalypse.
Even by that standard, " Summer: The Donna Summer Musical ," which opened on Monday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, is a blight. Despite the exciting vocalism of a cast led by the formidable LaChanze, it reduces the late Queen of Disco and pioneer of electronica to a few factoids and song samples that make her seem profoundly inconsequential. You could learn more (and more authentically) by reading a thoughtful obituary while listening to her hits — "Hot Stuff," " Last Dance ," "She Works Hard for the Money," among many others — online.
But then you would not be contributing to the music publishing enterprise that keeps jukebox musicals coming no matter how hard they get stomped on by critics.
Among the producers of "Summer" are Tommy Mottola, who helped reboot a version of the label that released Ms. Summer's early hits, and Universal Music Group, which oversees her catalog. (Universal also has a hand in " Mamma Mia! " and " Escape to Margaritaville .") I don't doubt the sincerity of their interest in brands that can still make them millions. It's the sincerity of their interest in musical theater I question.
That's because I found myself asking throughout the show's intermission-less 100 minutes: Can't they do any better than this?
Certainly Ms. Summer's life merits a more sophisticated treatment. Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston in 1948, she sang in church, dropped out of high school to try her luck in New York and by 1968 was playing Sheila in the Munich company of "Hair." While in Germany she not only married (briefly) the man who would provide her last name and first child but also met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who would produce 11 of her 20 albums. In 1975 they recorded the song " Love to Love You Baby ," which in a 17-minute, 22-orgasm dance mix became her first hit and made her world famous.
The story of Ms. Summer asking the two men to dim the lights and close their eyes while she writhes on the studio floor singing the hypersexed number is too good not to stage, and yet apparently not too good to stage poorly. The director Des McAnuff, who with Colman Domingo and Robert Cary also wrote the musical's book, skitters away from it after about 10 seconds, just as the show over all skitters away from almost everything even slightly awkward or troubling — and thus interesting — about Ms. Summer's life and career.
It totally botches, for instance, her relationship with the gay community , which instantly embraced her on the radio and the dance floor for reasons the show doesn't explore. Comments that Ms. Summer later made about God not creating "Adam and Steve" (let alone others she denied making about AIDS as a punishment for sin ) left many gay men feeling betrayed — a betrayal they attributed to her resurgent Christianity.
Rather than dramatizing this fascinating conflict head on, the musical brushes it aside as an ancient misunderstanding and uses Ms. Summer's gay publicist as an alibi. (Singing " Friends Unknown ," she mourns his death to show she couldn't have been homophobic.) It does not even mention her 1979 announcement that she was born again; she sings " I Believe in Jesus " instead.
Similarly, "Summer" sketches years of sexual abuse by her pastor with little more than a leer, a shoehorned number (" Pandora's Box ") and a few vague remarks. It's dramaturgy by song hook.
At the core of all of these missed opportunities is the split between Ms. Summer's manufactured image as a sex goddess and her self-image as a good girl. The musical makes its only stab at conceptual expressiveness by dividing Ms. Summer into three avatars to theatricalize that split: the mature Diva Donna (LaChanze), the young adult Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose) and, a bit desperately, the preteen Duckling Donna (Storm Lever).
This is hardly new. "Lennon" gave us five John Lennons; "The Cher Show," scheduled to open on Broadway in December , has three title characters. But as used in "Summer," the triple casting comes off as a gimmick, possibly necessary to spare any one performer a grueling sing but always dissipating whatever narrative energy the authors manage to gin up.
Still, I welcomed the division, because the script is otherwise appallingly banal, taking as its format the line of least resistance: a "concert of a lifetime" in which Ms. Summer recalls her highs and lows. None of them, including a 1976 suicide attempt and a homicidal ex-boyfriend, are dwelled upon long enough to register.
Rather, they are dismissed with trite phrases like "Once you're on a roller coaster it's real hard to get off" or, even worse, with a musical number. The ex-boyfriend's assault is set, with unintentional hilarity, to the Barbra Streisand duet "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)."
That shortchanges both the drama and the songs, which are already attenuated by a program favoring breadth (23 titles) over depth (many are just quick snippets). They thus provide little sense of what made the originals, with their hypnotic builds, so exciting.
"Summer" does give you a sense of what makes Broadway singing so exciting, though; along with Pavlovian nostalgia, that's probably what had the audience cheering the night I saw it. (Also cheering: recorded voices shouting "We love you, Donna!" and "The queen is back" to sweeten the opening scenes.) LaChanze is incapable of musical insincerity, however insincere the script may be, and delivers the songs thrillingly, if not in the ethereal, seemingly tossed-off Summer manner. Ms. DeBose and Ms. Lever connect less convincingly to the material, but neither they nor the hardworking ensemble — mostly women, often playing men — are the problem.
The problem is in part the jukebox form; disco music, with its skimpy lyrics and lack of development, is especially unfit for narrative use. And trapped within the arena concert format, the choreographer Sergio Trujillo can show us only a little of what dancing to Ms. Summer's tunes at Studio 54 or the Paradise Garage was like.
Another difficulty is the show's quasi-authorized nature; her second husband, the musician Bruce Sudano, is credited as a story consultant, which may be why all the rough edges have been removed.
But the main problem is Mr. McAnuff's lowest-common-denominator style. "Summer" is neither as slick as his production of "Jersey Boys" nor as tacky as his "Doctor Zhivago" yet it seems to want to imitate both. (Mr. Domingo's own plays, including "Dot," aim much higher.) Robert Brill's scenic design consists mostly of light boxes on which Sean Nieuwenhuis projects absurdly literal images, including a lipstick tube for a scene in which Duckling Donna puts on lipstick and a box of Marlboros when she lights up a cigarette. Apparently the show is pitched to the duckling in all of us.
If ever there were a diva unsuited to the expurgated, down-talking children's book treatment, it's Donna Summer. Her conflicts were adult ones, the stuff of real drama; her music more original and, to those who loved it, more liberating than it ever seems in "Summer."
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