Here’s a thing you’ll want to know: Donna Summer is dead. She died in 2012, of lung cancer that she believed was caused by exposure to toxic dust in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks.
This is, remarkably, not something you would know from Summer, the odd duck of a biomusical that opened tonight at the Lunt-Fontanne. Donna gets sick near the end of the show, but she and her family sing a defiant song, and then she goes on telling her story. If you have only a glancing familiarity with the Queen of Disco’s life—and, let’s be honest, how many living today have more than that?—you’re likely to walk out of the theater thinking, “Huh, so I guess she’s still alive?”
It’s only one of the many plot details that will leave you scratching your head. Summer, with a script credited to Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and the director Des McAnuff, uses three Donnas—Duckling Donna (Storm Lever), the little girl who hopes to grow up into a swan; Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose), the talented woman riding her success; and Diva Donna (LaChanze), the icon looking back at her life—to provide an episodic, song-driven, non-chronological look at her life. The performances are frequently electric, and the songs sound spectactular, but any attempt to learn something about Summer’s life, to understand what drove her, to gain a deeper era understanding of the disco era, comes and goes as quickly and lightly as that barely acknowledged tumor.
Each number proceeds the same way: There is a plot development interpolated into a song; the song ends and that chapter is over, never to be mentioned again. This is how we learn, barely, about her cancer, about her learning to drive, about abandoning Casablanca Records for Geffen, about an allegation that her childhood pastor molested her. Each episode is given equal weight, with immediate resolution, and thus nearly no weight at all. There’s virtually nothing on Summer as a songwriter, no sense behind some passing mentions that she was the author of her hits—or of her own life.
What’s oddest is that the musical is trying to tell a story or make a point at all. It clearly wants to be nothing more than a concert, and that’s when it’s at its best. There are 23 Summer hits here, in an intermissionless 100 minutes or so, and McAnduff, with the choreographer Sergio Trujillo, stages the hell out of them. It’s a sinewy, sexy, disco-inspired but not cheesily Solid Gold-style dancing, and the two main leading ladies are sensational, LaChanze fully embracing her character’s divaness, and her own, singing and moving as an unstoppable force. DeBose, as Disco Donna, does the hardest work, the one actor must not only sing the songs but also portray the bulk of Summer’s life and successes. The awkward, enervated script does her no favors, but she gives her character dignity and drive—and she’s as good as LaChanze in the big numbers.
One interesting choice by McAnuff and Trujillo is the casting of Summer’s ensemble. There are nearly no men in it. There are some male actors in the cast, playing Donna’s father and love interests. But the chorus is nearly all female, dancing and moving as disco-era women and men, some of the dancers in flowing gowns and others in bell-bottoms and sportscoats. It’s a nice illustration of the ambisexuality of the disco world, and it’s also—and a line in the script spins it this way—a women’s-power nod to the changing gender dynamics of the era. But it’s a decision that I suspect misjudges this musical’s audience. If the point is to have a good time at a sexy disco concert, I think I speak for all the gay men and middle-aged women in attendance when I say: some hunky chorus boys to look at, please. (Also, occasionally the lineup of women in suits looks like a Robert Palmer video.)
But, then, Summer is a musical that throughout seems to want you to have a great time but also slightly misses the mark. There is a moment early on when it seems like it might actually have something to say. After an opening dance number, we’re in the first scene. Diva Donna is on stage, regal in an electric-blue gown and windswept hair against a black stage. Her microphone has some reverb in it, suggesting a rock god commanding a stadium.
“For the longest time, people had me convinced there was something wrong with this music,” she says. “‘Dance music.’ Like the term was some kind of insult. … A synthesizer can sustain notes forever, so people said, ‘It’s not a real instrument. It’s cold, it’s robotic, it’s artificial.’ Well, screw ’em. We were the future. Our musical instrument wasn’t just the synthesizer. It was the whole recording studio.”
It’s the start of a spirited defense of disco as a genre and electronic music as an art. It hints at a sustained argument for that world and Summer’s work it. Instead, Summer just settles for having a good time.
Summer opened April 23, 2018, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Tickets and information: thedonnasummermusical.com