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BWW Review: SUMMER at Benedum Center brings back the 'Last Dance' of the Disco Era

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Touring season is in full swing with this disco throwback

BWW Review: SUMMER at Benedum Center brings back the 'Last Dance' of the Disco Era I have to admit: I was excited when I heard Summer was coming to town. I don't seem like the target audience for a disco nostalgia show, being straight, mostly white, and in my very early thirties. But my dad, a lifelong professional musician, grew up in the seventies and he loved the disco era for its use of huge bands and the best session musicians: it was dance music with a rock and roll band. Even closer to my own life experiences, when I performed in my high school's jazz band (really a soul and disco revue; we did almost no jazz at all) the band teacher put us through a "disco boot camp." We listened to the greats, watched documentaries and live performances, and knew all the disco hits by heart. So when I think of disco, I don't think of the bygone Studio 54 era of the mid to late seventies, I think of a cluttered band room and choir rehearsal space circa the mid-2000s. Good times.

So with that in mind, I have only one major quibble with the touring production of Summer: Donna Summer's music (and the disco era at large) was defined by its sonic maximalism. Large, lush bands with music you could get lost in. Cut back to a four-piece synth band to tour, the songs sound thin, empty and synthetic (even Donna's synthetic material from the Moroder years was anything but minimalist). It's a cruise ship where it should be a funk band and a symphony orchestra; there's a moment in the song "MacArthur Park" where the ensemble enters, dancing and playing orchestral instruments... but we don't hear any of the instruments they're holding. Still, this is 2021, and a non-equity tour at that, so small bands are the future. It sounded good, don't get me wrong... it just didn't sound quite RIGHT.

What does sound right, though, is the zippy, oddly elastic book by Robert Cary, Des McAnuff and Colman Domingo. Rather than the straightforward biomusical approach of Beautiful, or the faux-documentary of Jersey Boys, the Summer team has gone meta and nonlinear. The show begins with "Diva Donna," or Donna Summer in middle age (Brittny Smith), staging a comeback show. Teeny-tiny spoiler: the comeback show is a "comeback" to heaven... Donna Summer is dead. Playing with the audience and reliving her ups and downs out of linear sequence, Donna sorts through her memories of life by remixing them and reinterpreting them. As her golden era self, "Disco Donna" (Charis Gullage) takes center stage for the rest of the story, Diva Donna remains our emcee, but also steps in and out of the story to play Donna's mother Mary Gaines; similarly, her teen self "Duckling Donna" (Amahri Edwards-Jones) also plays Donna's eventual teenage daughter as well. The three Donnas perpetually interact, break the fourth wall and rely on each other for support and context.

This is absolutely the Donna show starring the three Donnas, and the rest of the cast plays second fiddle by design. A peculiar but enjoyable conceit from the bookwriters is that almost all the minor characters and cameos are gender-bending: women in men's suits and wigs making no attempt to conceal their gender but playing male characters. (This has been reduced a little for the touring production; here, legendary music figures David Geffen and Giorgio Moroder are played by David Ayala, but on Broadway this was a female track as well.) Brittny Smith, our hostess with the mostest, gets a throwaway line justifying this when she talks about the androgyny and gender fluidity of the disco scene; but oddly enough it seems to only go one way. I didn't notice any of the women being played by men. Maybe it started as a way to make casting easier or more equitable and wound up baked into the script?

Among the supporting cast, there are a few standouts, most notably the comedic characters. Christopher Lewis shines in the role of Neil Bogart, the disco Svengali who makes Summer into a superstar but holds her back from earning what she's worth. (His secondary role as Gunther, Donna's German lover turned abuser and would-be murderer, works a little less well; it's uncomfortably stuck between a serious performance and a Schwarzenegger-esque caricature.) David Tanciar, tasked with playing (let's put it bluntly) "all of the gays," gets a well-received fourth-wall break of his own in Act 2. He's the only character other than Donna who gets to step outside the narrative, and he confronts Donna over her brief flirtation with public homophobia in her later years: "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" I don't know enough about Donna Summer to know what her relationship to the queer community was as a whole; the book writers here spin it as a single tasteless and poorly-timed gay joke in concert that was taken out of context and overshadowed her whole history. Finally, the other featured player of note is maybe the closest to the piece's heart: Porter Lee Anderson III as Donna's father. Sometimes strict, sometimes temperamental, he's a softy underneath with a love of truly corny dad jokes, and it's impossible not to love him as much as Donna does.

As far as non-union tours go, this one looks pretty impressive, with sleek light boxes and some pretty great costumes (particularly the Annie Lennox-like grey eighties suits that the whole ensemble wears as their generic track costume). The wigs sometimes look a little rough, but it's just wigs. It can be forgiven. I know there has been some controversy in the past few years about people supporting versus boycotting non-Equity professional theatre; as a non-Equity professional myself, who could go union if he wanted but gets more small-scale work as a hobby without it, I truly believe there's a place for both and that it can't be an "us versus them" issue. I do hope, however, that the cast and crew of Summer are being accommodated, paid and treated with the respect they are due. I have no reason to suspect otherwise, thankfully- the cast seemed to be having as good of a time as the audience, who finally gave in to Donna's urging to get up and sing and dance in the "Last Dance" finale. As for me? Well, let's just say I was unobstructively bopping in my seat from nearly the first number.


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