Saturday, November 25, 2017

“Summer, The Donna Summer Musical” Makes World Premiere at La Jolla Playhouse.

The San Diego community, and then some have been waiting to see “Summer, The Donna Summer Musical” since the 2018 season was announced. Well, it’s here in all its technical glitz, glory and roar. Along with the three faces of Donna featuring a tremendously talented trio of gorgeous women with voices to match, telling the story of the ‘Queen of Disco’, “Summer The Musical” barely lives up to its potential. 

If you asked me before I went to see "Summer, The Donna Summer Musical" if I know/ knew of her music, I could truthfully say no. If you asked me when I left the theatre the same question, I could honestly tell you that I recognized exactly one; "On the Radio". 

When I asked my now adult daughters who of the three were playing her music when they were growing up, all fingers point to the oldest. I’ll check back with her again later.

It’s clear former La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys”), a disco enthusiast himself (He has his own band.) found her life and music to be interesting enough to collaborate with Coleman Domingo and Robert Cary in putting together this world premiere musical tribute. It will be playing in the Mandell Weiss Theatre through Dec. 24th.
Ariana DeBise as 'Disco Donna' with the cast of "Summer, The Donna Sommer Musical
With more pizzazz than substance, the show rocks with mega technical sounds maxed out to almost deafening, strobe lighting and in your face lighting, brighter and oversized than is needed lighting and subtitles lighting up around the stage telling us places and dates. Howard Binkley’s lighting design, certainly eye popping, is oft times blinding as well.  

The orchestra with musical director/conductor Victoria Theodore and her five piece band (led by Taylor Peckham on opening night), rocked the auditorium that sent my hearing aide off into places that made listening more difficult than not. Sound designer Gareth Owen might want to tone it down just a bit. I assure you it will still be effective.

Robert Brill’s (“Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”) scenic design is glossy white with geometric cubes, white furniture and shades of white in the background and over the course of the evening many of the cast were in variations of white while the three faces of Summer, in blue and black contrast beautifully.  

The three are all quite beautiful and dressed to the nines, for the most part in shades of blues coordinated by award winning costume designer Paul Tazewell. I even thought I caught a glimpse of some of Diane Von Furstenberg style dresses at one point in the transitioning years worn by other members of the cast. 
LaChanze as 'Diva Donna'
The three actors playing five time Disco Queen and  Grammy Award Winning Summer  are: Tony Award winner LaChanze as Diva Donna (“She Works Hard for the Money”, “Hot Stuff’ and “Last Dance”), Storm Lever (On My Honor” and “Duckling Donna”) as young Donna and Ariana DeBose (“On The Radio”) as mid-career Donna.

The three faces piece the story together separately and together sometimes one ends where the other begins. Oft times not. The strategy works in allowing the three talents to show off their musical magic but it still doesn't make up for the depth of story that it so lacks.  

In making their appearances they are lifted up from below stage on large white pedestals. They are pixelated on digital screens as large as the stage is across and overall at least part of Summer’s face is looking into the audience. Sean Nieuwenhuis is credited for the projections, of which there are many.

There are over a dozen looking men/women/ androgynous types/chorus singing the twenty or so songs by Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others. Most of the time I had to ask my theatre date if they were hers? It’s a good idea to take someone in the know if that person that doesn't know is you.
(L to R) LaChanze, Arians DeBose and Storm Lever
The dancers, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo are more interesting to watch than the story director McAnuff has strung together. Good news/bad news, most of what he and his collaborators are selling can be found on line by typing in her name.

Told in flashback as a youngster she found herself singing solo in her church. What most of the info does not reveal is that the same leader of the family church in Boston that praised her was also molesting her over the years.

She often ditched her classes in high school and never finished slipping out visiting the disco clubs (‘Studio 54’) in and around Boston and New York.

When she finally told her parents she was offered a part in the touring company of “Hair” in Germany and that she was going, over protests that she at least finish high school, she wore them down and that started her on a career that she tells us from the start ‘was fragmented but now wants to put it all together’.

It was in Germany that she met her first husband actor Helmuth Sommer (Rebecca Riker) with whom she had a little girl along with a rocky, to say the least abusive relationship that followed her all the way back to the states after they parted.

She set records, breaking through the racial barriers while overseas. Back in the states she wowed everyone in the industry with her breakthrough demo recording of “Love to Love You Baby” that became an overnight success.  

Her business successes and or not are glossed over, almost disappearing in a blink. She turned to religion later on in her life and dependence on drugs was mentioned over and over again, yet she continued one successful song after another along with national recognition on the way to stardom.

Donna Summer died at age 63 in 2013 from lung cancer. Her career spanned R&B, Disco and hip- hop. Her successes span the 70’s, 80’s 90’s well into 2000. Her awards and record setting albums fill the pages of professional magazines and Hall's of Fame. On the short list: “MacArthur Park”, “Hot Stuff”, “On The Radio”, and “Bad Girls”, “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Last Dance”. 

Her story deserves to be given more attention than we see in the 100 minute or so intermission-less production. With it all, McAnuff and his team while not really putting their best foot forward in this latest bio- musical by glossing over more than we get, does offer some great entertainment and a small peek into the turbulent life of “The Queen of Disco”, and first inductee into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in New York.

 For those in the know and even those on the outside her circle of music, and who knows with some tweaking it might even make it to Broadway. Catch it while you can  and you will be one of the many that can say, “I saw it when”.

“What I aspire to in my life, truly, is to be loving.”

 See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Dec. 24th.
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858.550.1010
Production Type: Musical
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037
Ticket Prices: Start at $58.00
 Venue: Mandell Weiss Theatre

Photo: Kevin Berne


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