Ariana DeBose and the company of ‘Summer.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
I’m sure director Des McAnuff had good intentions of reimagining a musical biopic of your life. We knew Ordinary Girl (your personal take on the project) was close to your heart before your untimely passing in 2012. But Summer: The Donna Summer Musical doesn’t do you justice. The critics haven’t been kind. But that, too, is partly undeserved. You were often ahead of the curve, seeing disco as the ultimate branding opportunity but also recognizing that every genre—like the seasons—eventually fades away.
Your voice never diminished, though, and you’d be proud to see three fantastic women, LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, and Storm Lever, embody your life from childhood to your last days. Lever, as Duckling Donna, reminds us of your church roots in Boston and a fiery spirit that would inspire you to head to New York City, audition for Hair, and leave everything as a teenager to perform in Munich, Germany. DeBose might look most familiar. She’s leggy like you were and has some of your quaint mannerisms, like a sensual, never-ending undulation that underpins some of your biggest hits. To be fair, she’s a better dancer than you ever were, but I think you’d appreciate the homage. In your life’s final act, LaChanze reminds us of your vocal power and captivating stage presence that earned you 16 Grammy nominations including five wins. But all that “Hot Stuff” isn’t enough to save Summer from missing the mark on your musical journey.
You endured more than most, including sexual abuse and a suicide attempt. And then there’s that controversial quote “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” that landed you in hot water with the LGBTQ community for a couple of decades. Of course, if you were around now and heard our president’s “grab them by the pussy” comments, you might wonder what all the fuss was about.
So herein lies the problem, Donna. The men (how ironic) tasked with bringing your life to the stage have mostly missed the mark on curating the impactful touchpoints of your incredible journey, instead, including nearly every passing moment in a vertigo-inducing array of vignettes that overlap versions of yourself. This includes dialogue spoken in unison, which unnecessarily slathers on a layer of hokey sentimentality, as well as preachy passages that feel inspired—not by your life—but rather by the growing empowerment from the 2017 Women’s March and #MeToo movement. The entire male creative team (yes, Donna… director, choreographer, scenic designer, costume designer, lighting designer, sound designer, projection designer, wig and hair designer, fight director, and choreographer: all male) have captured your sound, but not your voice.
But all is not forlorn. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo imbues your story with scintillating movement that captures the era. And while the creative team may have been stacked with men, they smartly cast a kick-ass ensemble of women who play men in an exciting twist of gender-bending. If only the musical’s book was as innovative. There’s plenty of eye candy from pivoting video panels to oversized disco balls, but the overzealous sound design, with its tinny echo meant to emulate a stadium concert, sounds forced and unnecessary.
Beyond the glitter and the glamour and the “Disco Queen” crown, you were the real deal, Donna. You were a songwriter. You were an accomplished musician and pitch-perfect vocalist. You were, indeed, “Hot Stuff.” I wish Summer wasn’t so tepid.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
205 West 46th Street
The real Donna Summer…
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.