BWW Review: SUMMER at the Paramount - A Raucous Party with No Story
"Summer, The Donna Summer Musical" opened last night, New Year's Eve, at the Paramount like a shiny ball descending on Seattle signifying the new year. But just like the ball dropping and switching from one year to the next, it amounted to very little other than a reason to party. With a book that feels like a story conveyed by a 6-year-old with severe ADHD and staging so bad that it actually made me laugh out loud at one point, this flashy tale of the life of a Disco Diva, filled with mirror balls, strobe lights, and even a car chase on stage, falls squarely into the realm of "what were they thinking?!"
As the title may suggest, the show spotlights the life and career of one of our fabulous Divas, Donna Summer. I will admit to being a fan of the works of Donna Summer. I practically wore a hole in my "Thank God It's Friday" soundtrack on vinyl listening to "Last Dance" over and over as a child. But I never knew of her tumultuous life ... and I still don't. Not really. Book writers Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff (who also directed the show), have divided her life into three eras with three actresses playing Donna. There's "Duckling Donna" (played by the original Broadway "Duckling", Storm Lever) who gives us her teen years, "Disco Donna" (Alex Hairston) for her (you guessed it) Disco years, and "Diva Donna" (Dan'yelle Williamson) who supplies the more mature performer. We follow her, or rather them, through the years and songs. And that would be fine if they bothered to actually tell her story.
The book scenes seem to only serve to set up the next song and each only lasts a few minutes before we're off to another number. And while the numbers somewhat address the tone of the situation presented, they're Disco songs so few convey much meaning, and don't further any story. And what little we get from the book scenes are largely abandoned before the story is complete. We find out that she witnessed a murder and named the boys who did it but never find out the outcome. We see her fight the record labels to retain control of her money and music but don't really get a sense of what happens (instead it just serves as a setup for "She Works Hard for the Money"). Even her illness and controversy with the gay community are rushed through so we can throw in another song. 23 songs in all. In an hour and 45 minutes. You do the math. And we don't even always get the full song.
And then there were the constant pleas for applause. (Something that drives me crazy.) The narration from the Donnas is done right to the audience and comes across as needy and begging for approval. In fact, after the first number the dialog actually threw in two of those pleas in the span of a minute. "Do you like my dress?" and "Are you having a good time?" How do we know if this is a good time? You just started! There was even a moment that I believe was scripted where some people in the audience cheer and yell "we love you Donna" just so she can say "I love you too". I can't prove it was staged but it felt out of place especially since it was also at the top of the show.
The staging from McAnuff looks like the work of someone thinking he's clever and patting himself on the back for it but it all looks cliché and conveys little. The show opens and closes with a lone record player center stage but has no context as to why it's there. The ensemble is filled with women playing men for no other reason I could see other than to save money. They could just have the female dancers also play the men in her life as long as they don't interact with her too much. Those men are played by men. And then there was the most ridiculous moment I think I've seen. When we get to the song "Enough is Enough", the duet she did with another Diva, Barbra Streisand, they don't mention Streisand at all. Instead the duet is done between two of the Donnas and underscores Disco Donna fending off her crazy ex-boyfriend "Gunther" by hitting him with a coffee table book. And which book is it? Barbra Streisand's. Yes, that was the moment that made me laugh. Because you want a laugh during domestic abuse?
The three saving graces of the show are the three Donnas. Each one has killer pipes and know how to sell a number. But if that's all we're here for then just make this a concert.
I honestly don't know what drove this show off the rails. Her life is filled with material to tell and I know Domingo is a much better writer than this. But for a show about a strong woman trying to break out of the mold men have forced her into, it seemed all they wanted to do was have her look and sing pretty and story be damned. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give "Summer, The Donna Summer Musical" at the Paramount a "perplexed as to how laughable this was" MEH+. If you're a fan of Donna Summer and just want to hear some of her music, you'll be fine. But if you want a complete story, well this is just "Faster and Faster to Nowhere".