Jukebox musicals are a fairly surefire way to profit on Broadway (although Escape to Margaritaville seems to be defying that logic, given that it’s closing on July 1). Summer: The Donna Summer Musical seems tailor-made to succeed. Director Des McAnuff (who also co-wrote the book along with Colman Domingo and Robert Cary) has been down this path to success with his prior efforts The Who’s Tommy and Jersey Boys. And the two Tony nominations Summer landed for leads LaChanze and Ariana DeBose must mean it’s a great production, no? Not exactly.
The idea that LaChanze, DeBose and Storm Lever portray the late vocalist’s different personas (Disco Donna/Diva Donna/Duckling Donna) is novel on paper, but proves to be a bit confusing in reality. Particularly when LaChanze and Lever also play Summer’s mother and daughter respectively. The set design is top-notch, capturing various locales in Summer’s life ranging from her working-class Boston environs and the glitzyness of Studio 54 to recording studios in Germany and Hollywood. But the creative approach of having a cast that’s essentially all-female playing virtually all the male roles, not unlike an inverse version of what Shakespeare was doing with The Globe Theatre, is jarring and doesn’t necessarily work. There is also a lot of chronological jumping around that can be dizzying.
While the audience gets the full Behind the Music treatment that includes anecdotes about Summer being groomed by mentor and label head Neil Bogart (who was one of the few male characters played by a man), enduring childhood molestation, a suicide attempt and a bad first marriage, it all seems to be glossed over. The musical’s creators get credit for addressing Summer’s anti-gay remarks that included, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” a 1983 on-stage quip the then-born again Christian made that alienated many of her most devoted fans.
The Donna Summer canon is what keeps this production afloat. Attendees can expect to get the kitchen-sink approach that not only includes Summer’s seminal songs—”MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All the Lights,” “Bad Girls,” “On the Radio,” “Heaven Knows,” “She Works Hard For the Money”—but collaborations with Musical Youth (“Unconditional Love”) and Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” although Streisand’s presence is glossed over. And by the time “Last Dance” is unleashed as the show closer, there’s no denying the greatness that was Donna Summer. But if you’re looking for a deftly told tale that goes beyond being a hagiography, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is not it.