by Beki Pineda
SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL – Songs by Donna Summer, Georgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others; Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff; Directed by Des McAnuff. Presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Broadway (Buell Theatre, 14th and Curtis, Denver) through February 9. Tickets available at 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.
I’ve come to not expect too much out of so-called Jukebox musicals. These are semi-biographical pieces that either tell the story of a singer or group through their own music (as in BEAUTIFUL) or use the music to tell a story unrelated to the life of the artist (a la MAMA MIA). SUMMER falls into the first category using the music Donna wrote to illustrate aspects of her life. Every musical and every play tells a story. What separates the good from the mediocre is what we learned from watching the performers tell the story. Unfortunately, everything we learned about Donna Summer through this production could have been gathered from program notes or a Wikipedia page.
It seemed that Summer had an interesting life based on the barrage of factoids we are given – sexual abuse as a child, two marriages, a run in with criminal types, her rise to Queen status among the disco crowd, her personal battle for independence, and on and on. But each of these were given such short shrift that it was hard to determine how they impacted her character. It was as though the book writers had an outline of what they wanted to include and decided they could only give 30 seconds to each incident or they wouldn’t get everything (and all the music) into the script. What they gained in breadth, they lost in depth.
This is certainly NOT to say that the three actresses portraying Donna at different times of her life did not have magnificent voices and try their best to pull this show to its feet. Dan’Yelle Williamson was the mature established Diva Donna who tells and acts in her own story almost as a memory. Alex Hairston was Disco Donna, the creature created by her success in her early 20’s. Young Olivia Elease Hardy was Duckling Donna as a youth and teenager. Their renditions of all 23 songs were flawless. Given as a concert, the evening would have been satisfying. It was just much more Las Vegas than it was Broadway.
One directorial decision seemed to puzzle the audience . . . and me. Throughout the production, several of the women dancers donned 70’s business suits or disco duds with short wigs and presented themselves as men. It was confusing and distracting, to say the least. Whether it was an obscure apology for remarks Donna made during her lifetime or an inability to find enough male dancers (very unlikely), it was off-putting and puzzling. No clear message was conveyed – either subliminal or bold.
The costumes were glitz personified and the set included the biggest disco ball I’ve ever seen. Technically the show moved along as it needed to with chairs sliding into place just as the behinds arrived to sit in them. I was rather surprised by the arrival and acknowledgement of five live musicians who created a giant rock band sound for the accompaniment to the vocal work – having believed all evening they were performing to a taped orchestra. That was impressive.
Those of you who lived through the Disco era of the 70’s will enjoy this dance through nostalgia. While this felt like a genuine homage to the MUSIC of Donna Summer, it did not feel like it honored the ARTIST Donna Summer sufficiently.
A WOW factor of 8!