In the same way that Andy Warhol predicted we will each have 15 minutes of fame, it is starting to look like every pop singer-songwriter and vocal group will have a biographical jukebox musical. And while some fared poorly on Broadway – Summer: The Donna Summer Musical lasted a mere eight months in New York – there is such a demand for product at performing arts centers across the country, even the subpar examples of the genre will probably gain a national tour.
Hey, they can’t all be Jersey Boys, the quality level of which Summer clearly aspires to. The problem is certainly not the music, for the show stuffs nearly two dozen of Summer’s mainly disco song hits into the evening. And the been-there-boogied-to-that Baby Boomers in the Kravis Center audience seemed to eat up the full-throttle renditions of such beat-heavy hits as “Enough Is Enough,” “She Works Hard For the Money,” and the evening’s two bravura codas, “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance.”
No, the fault lies with the show’s book, a sketchy, lifeless chronology credited to Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff (who also directed the Broadway production). It is not that Summer’s life and career are without dramatic highs and lows, but the adapting threesome were too busy scurrying to the next musical number to capitalize on the emotional potential of these events.
We hear about the spousal abuse that Summer endures and her drug addiction, but they fly past us without registering much impact. The same goes for the homophobic slur she uttered at a concert in Cleveland, which so alienated much of her gay following. Similarly squandered is Summer’s brief foray into the movies with Thank God It’s Friday, which won an Oscar for “Last Dance” and was then declared the worst movie to ever receive an Academy statuette.
Like other jukebox bios such as The Cher Show, Summer divides the title character among three performers. There’s Diva Donna (Brittny Smith), the older and somewhat wiser one, looking back over her life and narrating it for us. There’s Disco Donna (Charis Gullage), the representative of her middle years, who handles most of the bombastic, bravura singing. And there’s Duckling Donna (Amahri Edwards Jones), who is, uh, young. Each is a standout singer and they harmonize well on the numbers they sing together, but otherwise little is made of the three distinct segments of Summer’s life.
The physical production is big and splashy, although on a smaller scale than the Broadway version. Director Lauren L. Sobon seems overly enamored of six mobile panels which keep changing colors for no discernible reason as they move about defining the various playing spaces. Otherwise, locales are established by a stage-wide screen on which attention-grabbing animations and abstract patterns are projected. John C. White is credited with costume coordination, based on Paul Tazewell’s sparkle-plenty original designs. And Russell A. Thompson’s lighting is up to rock concert standards.
If you happen to mourn the demise of the disco era, then Summer is surely the show for you. And I have no doubt that you will be on your feet by the end of the show, as the cast goes into the most shameless demand for a standing ovation within memory.
SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Thursday, May 26. $33-$104. 561-832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.