By CB Adams
It’s nice to be surprised, even at what might seem like just another jukebox musical. And yet, that’s exactly what “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” achieved.
On opening night at the Fox Theatre, the audience obviously came primed to be wowed by performances of Ms. Summer’s greatest hits like “Love to Love You Baby,” “MacArthur Park,” “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff.” The show doled them out in a steady stream and culminated, predictably in…you guessed it, the show-ender “Last Dance.”
Like many jukebox musicals, Summer the show suffers from moments of clunky dialogue, yuck-yuck jokes and plot shifts that require more than a simple suspension of disbelief. And it artificially tries to create momentum by turning up the volume or bass (or both).
But unlike most of this genre’s brethren and sistren, Summer transcends its own shortcomings, with thanks due largely to Dan’yelle Williamson as Diva Donna/Mary Gaines (her birth name), Alex Hairston as Disco Donna and Olivia Elease Hardy as Duckling Donna/Mimi (one of Ms. Summer’s daughters.)
Yes. That’s right.
It takes three performers to properly portray the one real-life Donna Summer, who was no one-hit wonder. This vocal triptych is apropos because Summer was more than the sum of her parts, and that sum comprised her many talents as singer, songwriter, mother, wife, visual artist and all-around diva.
Sometimes solo and sometimes sharing the stage simultaneously as Summer wrestled with her life’s demons and dilemmas, Williamson, Hairston and Hardy (you could call them the Three Facets) do Donna proud.
They may not have Summer’s chops or X-factor presence, but they evoke and reflect the power, emotion and confidence of their powerful pop progenitor.
Another part of this show’s success is the book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cray and Des McAnuff. Instead of concocting a contrived, wink-wink plot, Summer hits the Cliffs Notes (the highs as well as the lows) of Ms. Summer’s life and career.
This nonfiction element works well enough within the context of this show and provides an acceptable, linear story arc while engaging in some not-too off-putting revisionist history and legacy polishing.
It appeared that most in the audience were already familiar with the undulations of Summer’s career. They came to party like it was 1979, not slog through the high drama of Mommy Dearest or The Color Purple (though this show presents “lite” versions of similar themes).
The songs, to borrow a phrase from oenology (and maybe Tina Turner), still have legs. Though at the time of their release they suffered the slings and arrows of the “Disco Sucks” movement,
Summer’s songs still have the power to make you shake your groove thing, even if more than a few audience members had to shake ‘em sitting down. Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd and his diatribe about “pre-programed electronic disco” would have been admonished to shut up and dance.
The auditorium was filled with so much head bobbing and seat dancing that surely they put to shame the puny “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in Wayne’s World.
The Summer stage sparkled brightly under the direction of Des McAnuff, choreography by Sergio Trujillo, music supervision by Ron Melrose, scenic design by Robert Brill, costumes by Paul Tazewell and lighting by Howey Binkley. This combination gave Summer an early-MTV vibe, a la Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video.
The stage was clean and minimal while evoking the spirit of its times while never overwhelming the presence of Summer in any or all of her three facets.
The unexpected surprise of this show, wasn’t, however, any of the above. It wasn’t one of Summer’s mega-hits, which were practically designed to be uber-crowd-pleasers. Rather, it was a song later in the one-act show – “I Believe in Jesus” performed by Disco Donna. Hairston’s passionate performance brought the show to a standstill, in all the best ways, and received some of the most heartfelt, resonant applause of the evening.
The song’s placement in the show marks a beat in Summer’s life when her faith was reinvigorated. And, like several other obvious and subtle moments, conveyed yet another facet of the strong, talented, driven, successful woman behind the Queen of Disco moniker.
The Fabulous Fox Theatre presents “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” January 15-26. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.