Someone really did leave the damn cake out in the rain.
That’s my metaphorical summation of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” Fans will recognize the allusion, and I’ll throw in one more for good measure. As we have learned over the past couple of decades, when jukebox musicals are bad, they are so, so bad.
“Summer” is a case in point. The hits are all here, performed by two gifted singing actors: LaChanze as the later-career Donna, or “Diva Donna” as she is denoted in the program, and Ariana DeBose as the earlier “Disco Donna,” when Summer’s fame was at its height. There’s a third Donna, too, the young girl “Duckling Donna,” played with mommy-daddy-I-want-to-sing perkiness by Storm Lever.
Fine as they all are, the musical cannot overcome a fatal flaw in its conception: Summer’s voice was one of the greatest, and most distinctive, of her era, and when you hear LaChanze and DeBose singing her songs, your mind may click over to the recorded versions Summer herself made immortal, and note the discrepancy, distancing yourself from the musical. This was less of a problem with shows like “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” in which Jessie Mueller did a reasonably good imitation of that singer’s also unique voice, and “Jersey Boys,” with its harmonies that replicated the sounds of the Four Seasons.
“Summer” shares with those shows (of which I am no ardent fan) a fundamental problem that plagues jukebox musicals: an attempt to try to fit the hit songs into the characters’ actual lives by integrating them into the plot. (As opposed to “Mamma Mia!,” which invented a fictional story to fit the music.) The attempt is never successful, particularly here, because Summer’s big disco hits do not lend themselves to the depiction of her life story. They mostly feel shoehorned in with a crowbar.
The show, written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, who also directs, moves in jumbled chronological order through Summer’s life. First we see Disco Donna and the Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder in Munich, recording her early hits, the lush “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby.” Soon she’s topping the charts, and has signed with Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records.
But, as in many streets-to-stardom tales, Donna is not entirely comfortable with the trappings of success. As LaChanze’s Diva Donna — who pops up on a white chair onstage when a narrative transition is necessary — says, with thundering obviousness: “It all happened so fast. I was totally unprepared.” Also: Donna starts pill-popping, naturally, which cues a funny but semi-tasteless Judy Garland joke.
We then see scenes from Donna’s youth in Boston, growing up the daughter of a strict but loving father, and learning she has a gift by singing in church. Insecure — she considers herself an “ugly duckling”— but driven to perform, by her teenage years she has landed an international tour of “Hair,” which brings her to Germany. (Worst joke: When Donna calls home, her father says: “Don’t eat the sausage. It’s the Wurst.”) Here the production interpolates, appealingly, a performance of the song “White Boys” from “Hair,” sung with a verse in German.
She meets a man; marriage and a baby ensue. But — somewhat confusingly, since this all seems to be happening before her first recordings — Neil comes to convince Diva Donna that she needs to concentrate on her career. “Why is there always a price?” she laments, tritely, before sending her new daughter to be raised by her parents for several years.
Oh, and — spoiler alert — it’s lonely at the top, so Donna breaks her own rule, of never dating a musician, and takes up with and eventually marries a band member. But in perhaps the most ludicrous scene, a German ex-lover arrives to cause a violent ruckus. Mainly, one suspects, to make the inclusion of the man-bashing “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” Summer’s duet with Barbra Streisand, vaguely logical. Gunther, as bad German guy is called, assaults Donna, who defends herself with — cue me rolling my eyes — a coffee table book about Streisand.
McAnuff, who also directed “Jersey Boys,” keeps the show moving at the brisk pace of 45rpms, for those who remember the vinyl era. But the by-the-numbers checklist of the lows and highs of Summer’s life still feels plodding. And the transitions from story to song are often either flimsy or non-existent.
“On the Radio” arises just because Donna happens to be driving around. “Bad Girls” pops up out of nowhere, since this funky hit about prostitutes could not sensibly be woven into the story of Summer’s life; unexplained is why Disco Donna would be consorting on the streets of Los Angeles with a chorus of hookers.
The last chapter — which comes after we learn Donna is dying, so it seems almost like a dutiful afterthought — arises when she makes an awkward apology for the biggest controversy of her career; she said, at a concert, that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Once that’s cleared up (of course, she loves her gays), it’s on to the finale.
The small chorus is, unusually, made up primarily of woman, who in several instances play minor male roles (including David Geffen, when Donna realizes that Neil has been swiping most of the profits of her recordings and switches allegiances). The dance numbers, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, are cheesy festivals of generic disco gyrating. The sets are minimalist, with video projections (by Sean Nieuwenhuis) on large white panels doing most of the scene-setting. Some of Summer’s own paintings are included in the projections.
The music is certainly the most compelling element. If you can chase memories of Summer’s inimitable voice from your head, I suppose you could look past the book’s clunkiness (“Everyone gets a gift,” intones Diva Donna, “Your gift is for me and my gift is for you. For all of you.”), and let the songs push the “I Feel Love” nostalgia button in your brain. The culminating numbers, “Hot Stuff” and of course the inevitable finale, “The Last Dance,” during which a disco ball the size of a house descends and silvery confetti drenches the theater, naturally bring the audience to its feet.
I stood (to be able to see what was going on), but through my mind went a silent prayer: If there’s a discotheque in heaven, I hope Donna — Duckling, Disco or Diva — is up there swirling under a mirrored ball, not looking down on the musical that memorializes her life and music with as much banality as affection.
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Mon. April 23, 2018.
Creative: Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff; Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder and Paul Jabara; Music orchestrated by Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose; Music arranged by Ron Melrose; Story Consultant: Bruce Sudano; Directed by Des McAnuff; Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo; Scenic Design by Robert Brill; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design by Howell Binkley; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Projection Design by Sean Nieuwenhuis.
Producers: Produced by Tommy Mottola, The Dodgers, Steven and Alexandra Cohen, Courtney Sachs, Ollawood Productions, Lawrence S. Toppall, Rodney Rigby, Morris Goldfarb, James L. Nederlander, Universal Music Group and The John Gore Organization
Cast: Ariana DeBose, LaChanze, Storm Lever, Aaron Krohn, Ken Robinson, Jared Zirilli, Angelica Beliard, Mackenzie Bell, Kaleigh Cronin, Kimberly Dodson, Anissa Felix, Drew Wildman Foster, Kendal Hartse, Afra Hines, Jenny Laroche, Wonu Ogunfowora, Rebecca Riker, Christina Acosta Robinson, Jessica Rush, Harris M. Turner.