SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL Opens at The Fox - I'd Love to Love You, Baby
SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical opens with a swell of music and a chorus full of sequined, big-haired glittered-up dancers who sure can sing. The costumes are dazzling. The strobe lights are electrifying. Everything is loud and large and pulsing and promising. "You like that modest opening?" Diva Donna (Dan'yelle Williamson, one of the three actors who plays Donna) asks the audience outright. "We just threw it together." It's funny of course, because this is a big production, and nothing is farther from the truth. However, as the plot progresses, it feels more and more like, as my show companion articulated, "A group project wherein fifteen people worked separately and then threw everything together [into one PowerPoint presentation using all different fonts and backgrounds.]" Because, well. It's strangely disjointed for a mostly linear show.
It's not the acting or singing or dancing that's bad. Let's be clear. Williamson, Alex Hairston, and Olivia Elease Hardy, who take turns narrating parts of the story, slay the shared role of Donna, bolstered by a strong ensemble of supporting characters. There's a lot to like here, including the sheer number of Donna Summer hits, like "I Feel Love," "Love to Love You Baby," "On the Radio," "Bad Girls," "She Works Hard for the Money," "Hot Stuff," and "Last Dance," just to name a few. Des McAnuff's direction elicits strong performances all around. The band, conducted by Music Director Amanda Morton, is energetic and lively with bumping synthesizer programming by Randy Cohen. The drop-down LED screens are used in fresh and imaginative ways, thanks to Sean Nieuwenhuis's projection design.
It's just that. Well. Story-wise, there's nothing surprising or profound here. And for someone whose life included sexual abuse, drop-out, drug addiction, interracial love, international stardom, and cancer, it seems honing in on one or two of those bombs could be dynamite. The Queen of Disco (a legend, amIrite?) deserves better than to have her entire life wrapped sloppily around a handful of her biggest hits. In fact, because the plot covers an entire lifetime, no one scene gets enough focus to make its audience really care that much about our heroine's trajectory. And sadly, the bumping synthesizer and geometric light screens along with the fabulous costumes (which are stunningly, thoughtfully color-coordinated for each character) and fantastic vocals (oh! The vocals!) don't quite make up for the loss.
This musical also features a fair amount of exposition, some weak jokes, and lots of cringeworthy, synthetic wisdom. Most of those bits of dialogue are contrived to force us over to the next hit song, which admittedly is how jukebox musicals often operate structurally. But more than a few of these words-to-live-by are overt barbs directed toward men. And while we get the sense that men--overarchingly--have wronged Donna over the course of a lifetime, there's not enough story or character development in any one of these relationships to make the pain of that feel authentic. What might have been a very strong, before-her-time, feminist triumph feels underdeveloped and inorganic.
Go for the concert. Go for the enormous disco ball at the end. Go because each ensemble member gets their own separate bow (this was honestly one of my favorite parts of the night). Go because this is a show where it's perfectly okay to pop up out of your seat and sing along. But don't go expecting to be enlightened or touched in any intellectually satiating way. It was not my favorite musical, but you've gotta love a good Summer night in the midst of this cold winter, and the audience, who clearly came to dance, roared.
SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical with songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others; book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff; music supervision and arrangements by Ron Melrose; Choreography by Sergio Trujillo, and Direction by Des McAnuff plays through January 26 at the Fox Theatre, St. Louis. For tickets and more information, https://www.fabulousfox.com/events/detail/summer.