Review: Donna Summer’s Bio-Musical Opens on Broadway, Primed for (If Nothing Else) a Good Time

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Review: Donna Summer’s Bio-Musical Opens on Broadway, Primed for (If Nothing Else) a Good Time

LaChanze (Diva Donna), Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna), Storm Lever (Duckling Donna), and the cast of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” now open at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. (COURTESY OF JOAN MARCUS)

LaChanze (Diva Donna), Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna), Storm Lever (Duckling Donna), and the cast of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” now open at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. (COURTESY OF JOAN MARCUS)

LaChanze (Diva Donna), Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna), Storm Lever (Duckling Donna), and the cast of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” now open at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. (COURTESY OF JOAN MARCUS)

LaChanze (Diva Donna), Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna), Storm Lever (Duckling Donna), and the cast of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” now open at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. (COURTESY OF JOAN MARCUS)

By MICHAEL APPLER, Staff Writer

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There comes a time in your experience of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” — and hopefully it arrives sometime before cascades of glitter rain down into the audience in a disco explosion, sometime before actual audience members jump from their seats to dance in the aisles (because, I assure you, both of those things will happen) — when you must resign yourself to the fact that this is a musical with little plot and no substance and when you inevitably must learn to sit giddily in the delusional comforts of a musical made for Donna’s sake and Donna’s sake only.

I pray, as I’m sure do the hordes of patrons who’ve come to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre to get their drink on, to dance in their seats (or out of them) to classic disco and reminisce in the hedonic pleasures of Donna Summer, that this moment arrives for you.

Without it, “Summer” may seem like a Broadway musical with a production value that is uncommonly low. It may look like a perfect installation of the vacancies and cringe-worthy clichés that plague jukebox musicals. Its design may seem to hinge on a few painfully repetitive gags — count how many times someone rises on a pedestal from the stage — steeped in every tired device of modern theater production: screens for the sake of screens and an endless parade of pointless set pieces, too.

Its narrative, composed of ill-constructed vignettes from various moments of Donna’s life that appear so loosely strewn together even those meant to strike at some poignancy can hardly be taken seriously, may allude you. And its book, so filled with corny, tacky lines whose only purposes are to tortuously meander their way into cueing the next song, may baffle you in its ability to be presented earnestly on a Broadway stage.

Yet, somehow by the end of the musical, I was on my feet, silly with laughter while covered in sequins that had exploded from the stage during “Hot Stuff.” How did I get there?

Ariana DeBose and the cast of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” performing Donna Summer’s hit single, “Hot Stuff.” (COURTESY OF JOAN MARCUS)

Directed and choreographed by Des McAnuff and Sergio Trujillo (the same pair who crafted the most successful jukebox musical in history, “Jersey Boys”) and starring LaChanze, Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever as Donna at three stages in her life (Diva, Disco and Duckling, respectively), “Summer” is a warm-hearted musical doubtlessly made with the utmost love and appreciation for its subject. Striving to give Donna the same bio-musical treatment that has brought new life to the careers of artists like Carole King (and by the end of this year, Cher), it remains obvious, even through all of the glaring flaws present in this production, that a deep admiration for the Queen of Disco runs through the veins of this musical, striving with all of its might to make something that is artistically palatable.

And even if the production ultimately fails in that regard (and no question, it does), that kernel of warmth, of love for Donna Summer present at every turn, inevitably carries audiences from gaff to gaff, cliché to cliché, helping to excuse (if only slightly) all of the outrageous miscalculations that soundly relegate this musical to a critical flop.

And let’s be clear—I’d pay a good amount of money to see LaChanze again returned to the Broadway stage. The Tony-winning leading lady of “Once On This Island” and “The Color Purple” is for Broadway regulars as much a star in this production as Donna herself; for sure, there are moments throughout this show where her inexorable diva fuses with Donna’s, bringing the house to its feet not once, not twice, but three times at the performance I attended. Ariana DeBose (“Hamilton”), well on her way to becoming a Broadway star herself, gives an equally admirable performance as Disco Donna, embodying the groove and sensuality that flowed so perceptibly from Donna Summer at the height of her career.

In the end, a delusional dedication to the memory of disco, to the reincarnation of those all-night parties that defined Studio 54, propel this show. Audience members in the aisles, dancing drink in-hand below two mammoth disco balls that drop into the orchestra, bring this show to a close, breaking nearly every social cue I understand for attending a Broadway production and commending my experience of this musical to that of some bizarre fever dream—one to which I hope never to return, but, in all honesty, am lucky to have suffered.