Though there are appealing sequences, it’s ultimately an inconsequential treatment of the beloved and iconoclastic pop figure’s life story. Over 20 songs are crammed in, some of which are quite enjoyable to experience.
“MacArthur Park” gets a gloriously flamboyant presentation with the ensemble in white formal wear furiously strumming instruments that does great justice to that soaring camp classic. “Love to Love You Baby” receives a documentary style incarnation that depicts the contentious creation of it in a Munich recording studio. “On the Radio” is inventively done in a car. For the grand finale of “Last Dance,” the theater becomes a disco palace with a mirror ball and mounds of glittery confetti dumped on the euphoric audience.
On the negative side, “She Works Hard for the Money” is realized as a showy agitprop production number extolling equal pay for women after Summer was cheated by the music industry. The cast wear big-shouldered 80’s style boxy suits and gesticulate with their briefcases. A far cry from the weary coat check worker who inspired the song or the brigade of blue collar laborers in the iconic music video with Summer as a frazzled waitress.
The conceit is that Donna Summer is giving a concert that becomes a confessional addressed to the audience.
The workmanlike book credited to Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff ticks off milestones by rote with facile vignettes. A solid Christian Boston upbringing with singing in church, performing in the foreign tour of Hair and ending up living in Germany, accidental stardom, domestic abuse, pill addiction, a redemptive romance, a stable family life, Christian reawakening and fatal cancer are all swiftly dramatized.
The hardworking and talented ensemble does their best to fill out the sketchy representations of pivotal characters that include music producer Giorgio Moroder (played by Kaleigh Cronin), record company executive Neil Bogart (Aaron Krohn), media mogul David Geffen (Mackenzie Bell) , her benevolent parents (Ken Robinson and LaChanze), an abusive German boyfriend (Drew Wildman Foster), her supportive second husband (Jared Zirilli) and an assortment of tangential characters.
To their credit the creators do include a portion about a notorious and questionably homophobic episode that was incongruous due to her large gay following. “God created Adam and Eve. Not Adam and Steve.” This was taken as an insensitive remark in the mid-1980’s when AIDS was in full force. The show presents this as she claimed, an off-the-cuff joke made to quiet down an unruly claque of gay attendees during a concert and not as a religious condemnation.
Mr. McAnuff who worked wonders with his direction of Jersey Boys here offers a chilly vision that evokes a sterile landscape replicating a heavenly waiting room in connection with Robert Brill’s austere scenic design. The décor is an all-white barren universe with trap doors, platforms and floating panels on which so-so illustrative images by projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis are shown as well as functional furniture tossed in. The opening image is of an old record player rising from the floor. McAnuff’s presentation is of calculated professionalism absent of spontaneity or joy.
Much of Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is a wan regurgitation of disco era moves rather than an artful recreation, though there are a few accomplished bits.
Howell Binkley’s lighting design is suitably shiny and sound designer Gareth Owen crafts a raucous mélange conveying the essence of Summers’ sound. Paul Tazewell’s costume design is delightfully heavy on sequins.
Before her death at the age of 63 in 2012, Donna Summer had been working on an autobiographical show that lamentably did not get produced. It would have undoubtedly contained more depth, insight and creativity than the hollow excercise on display in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (open run)
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.thedonnasummermusical.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission