Every season theater producers drop a wad of coins in the jukebox like gamblers pouring quarters into slot machines. Broadway jackpots might be rarer than Las Vegas windfalls, but the behemoth paydays of “Jersey Boys” and “Mamma Mia!” keep the old records spinning inside our theaters.
It’s now Donna Summer’s turn. “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” which had its world premiere Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse under the glitzy direction of Des McAnuff, serves as both title and brand name.
Believe it or not, a show about the Go-Go’s, “Head Over Heels,” is already in the works. Soon, if we’re not careful, we’ll be reliving Hall & Oates at Broadway prices. (A warning from the prophetic Book of McNulty: When Air Supply resounds in the theater district, the apocalypse is nigh.)
My iPod, a portable oldies station, has a version of “MacArthur Park” that is roughly four hours long. I’m the target demographic for this show. I was still in grade school when Summer moaned her way to stardom with “Love to Love You Baby,” but I remember getting a fairy-tale high from listening to my sister’s “Once Upon a Time” album as she put on her makeup for her disco night out.
When I first saw the poster for “Summer” a few months ago, I exclaimed, “I need that!” I’ve discovered, however, that I don’t need this flimsy bio musical, and neither do you.
In a musical form not famous for literary finesse, “Summer” lowers the bar. The book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and McAnuff is like a file in which all the bad things that ever happened to Summer are recorded along with the good. The lack of playwriting imagination is startling. If the program didn’t state otherwise, I’d be sure the writing was outsourced to Wikipedia.
Three actresses play Summer at different stages in her life: Tony-winning powerhouse LaChanze is Diva Donna. Ariana DeBose is Disco Donna. And Storm Lever is Duckling Donna. Of the three, LaChanze comes closest to re-creating Summer’s vocal magic, but not even she can duplicate the combination of clarity, power and sensuality that made the “Queen of Disco” label seem inadequate for this blazing talent. (Barbra Streisand, who sang a duet with Summer on “No More Tears,” can vouch for Summer’s preternatural pipes.)
The setup could hardly be more rudimentary. Diva Donna, pattering to her fans, promises to give them a night they’ll remember forever: “You know they say, play each show as if it’s your last one and one day you’ll be right. I guess this is the concert of a lifetime.”
The writing only devolves when an overriding thematic scheme is introduced. “A person’s life should be like a fabulous mansion — all windows, portraits, mirrors,” Diva Donna muses as though winging it from a pulpit. Windows, she likes, but portraits and mirrors make her nervous. Her full reflection eludes her. “I just see … fragments,” she says. “But tonight, I want to put it all together. I need to put it all together.”
In place of story, McAnuff supplies theatrical concepts. Time doubles back on itself, allowing all three Donnas the chance to sing together — a device that works better on paper than in practice. A female chorus in male drag swirls around the pop star to puzzling effect. The music, it is explained, opened up a world of “mystery and androgyny.”
But Summer’s disco days were championed by gay men and straight couples in clubs like Studio 54, Xenon and 2001 Odyssey (where Tony Manero and his Brooklyn crew from “Saturday Night Fever” liked to hang out). If McAnuff’s update seems wide of the mark, it’s probably a reaction against kitsch. (Disco has its polyester dangers.)
There’s a more interesting story to be told about Summer, whose mind was Europeanized after she left Boston as a teenager to perform in a production of “Hair” in Germany. Race, religion and artistic freedom engendered conflicts within her that the music industry tried to airbrush over. Her tale has a few unexpected parallels with alt-rocker Stew’s saga in “Passing Strange,” a much more artful bio musical. Domingo was part of that show’s Broadway cast, but the book he collaborated on with Cary and McAnuff is a much more mercenary enterprise.
Summer had a hand in writing her biggest hits and was always looking to challenge herself creatively as both a singer and a painter of some ambition. But “Summer” has less depth than a profile in People magazine. A commercial machine making excuses for the next big number, the script might as well be printed on ledger sheets.
McAnuff, partnering again with “Jersey Boys” teammates choreographer Sergio Trujillo and music supervisor Rob Melrose, tries to cover up the deficiencies with maximum dazzle. His production made me think of what would happen if Wolfgang Puck ever took over McDonald’s. The menu would no doubt look fancy, but it would still be artery-clogging fast food.
Paul Tazewell’s glittery costumes and Robert Brill’s white-box set strand us in a sensational theatrical nowhere. I was eager to succumb to the energy, but the show kept coming up short. The best number is the catchiest though hardly the most adventurous song: “She Works Hard for the Money,” written when Summer, whose instincts were sharply prescient, was trying to lose the disco mantle.
There’s certainly no shortage of danceable tunes. But the way the songs are cut up suggests that what works well on the dance floor isn’t necessarily effective onstage. The back story of the music is often clunky and contrived, but there are moments of genuine feeling, as when LaChanze’s Diva Donna hears the opening strains of “On the Radio” and lets the memory of the music inspire her gorgeous rendition.
Giorgio Moroder (Mackenzie Bell), the Italian producer whose studio wizardry launched Summer into the stratosphere, is reduced to a drag cartoon. Neil Bogart (Aaron Krohn), the record executive who packaged Summer for stardom then fell into conflict with her over money, is portrayed with no more subtlety.
Jared Zirilli brings some genuine feeling to the role of Brooklyn Dreams singer Bruce Sudano, the man who eventually earned the right to call Donna by her middle name, Adrian. Her husband and protector, Sudano stood beside Summer when she found out about the dire medical condition that would eventually take her life in 2012 at the age of 63.
But the musical is such a patchwork that the chapters of Summer’s life flash by in cursory fashion. Nothing has much impact. Scenes from Summer’s childhood, with LaChanze as Duckling Donna’s mother and Ken Robinson as her father, are trite and uninvolving. Much of Summer’s story was already known to me through cultural osmosis, and the parts that weren’t (the way, for instance, religion helped her through her drug rehabilitation) didn’t seem like any of my business.
The authors’ dramatic method is to make mention of anything unfortunate that ever happened to her (from sexual abuse to suicidal thoughts) while constantly reminding us that the secular and the spiritual are forever dividing Summer’s soul. The controversial remark that the singer is reported to have made about gays during a concert (“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) is apologized for by Diva Donna in a side note section that seems written by producers anxious not to alienate future ticket-buyers.
“I guess I’ve always been a contradiction,” Diva Donna says in summation of this superfluous show. LaChanze, at least, brings the house down at the end in “Friends Unknown,” after which bursts of “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” conspire to delude theatergoers into thinking they had a memorable time.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends Dec. 24