Sunday, October 13, 2019

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical at Playhouse Square

THEATER REVIEW: “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical @ Playhouse Square by Laura Kennelly

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Through Sun 10/27

This song-packed show at Playhouse Square’s Connor Theatre is designed to combine a tribute to Donna Summer, the “Disco Queen,” and the music she created. It delivers on the music. Anyone who grew up to the disco beat and the pop rock that followed might enjoy remembering “back in the day.” Certainly some in the audience opening night seemed to enjoy sharing smiles — perhaps remembering times past.
Directed by Des McAnuff, the musical features over 20 hit songs from disco and pop rock, strung together by a superficial bio of the superstar. An icon for decades, Summer died at age 63 in 2012. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the next year, so Cleveland seems a fitting location for the official media preview of the 2018 Broadway show’s national tour.
Bright lights and a pulsing beat, glittering costumes, and an impassioned team of dancers highlight the show. Three actress/vocalists convincingly portray Donna Summer and sing up a storm. There’s Dan’yelle Williamson, as the world-famous Diva Donna (when she’s not putting on a shawl and being Mary Gaines, Donna’s mother); Alex Hairston as the younger on-her-way-up-in-the-world Disco Donna; and Olivia Elease Hardy as Duckling Donna, the choir girl who learns about life the hard way. All three sing like angels — well, sexy angels in some cases, as when Summer records her first big hit, “Love to Love You Baby”). Other familiar songs include “Hot Stuff,”  “Bad Girls” and “She Works Hard for her Money.”
But all that is not enough to make Summer anything more than a paper-doll cut-out puppet display featuring old hits and young dancers. Donna Summer must have been a complex woman, but this book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff only offers a Cliff’s Notes version of her resilience and talent. It’s not enough.
The sets were minimal (scenic design by Robert Brill) and the glittery costumes (by Paul Tazewell) usually outshone them. The three Donnas almost always wore blue so they were easy to spot. (Sorry to criticize the color, but Summer’s quoted in an interview for her 2008 album, Crayons, as saying that her favorite color is green. It would have looked better than the rather tired old basic primary color blue used in the show.) Sound design by Gareth Owen featured an appropriately throbbing bass (and wasn’t too loud — a big plus). I’m not sure whether it was sound design or real life, but early on cheers from the balcony sounded pre-recorded (and the diva’s response to them seemed rehearsed). No problem, just interesting.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s light as a feather (despite lip service to women’s rights and equal pay) compared to biographical musicals such as Funny Girl or Gypsy that make us care about their subject. However those who really enjoyed Jersey Boys or Motown may find themselves loving it and dancing. (BTW: There’s a party next door to the theater after every show.)

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