It seems a bit odd to advocate for a play’s run time to be longer.
Yet for as many things that Donna Summer’s musical does well, one of the show’s biggest faults is how it doesn’t delve deep into a very interesting life, a woman who cut her teeth in Germany and ultimately went on to become the Queen of Disco. Summer was a woman with oodles of talent and the catchiest of sounds that have aged very, very well.
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” which is running at Broadway San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, has so much going for it, starting with three interesting versions of Donna. There is Duckling Donna (understudy De’Ja Simone) learning the ropes in a male dominated world of cigar smoke and misogyny. Then you have Disco Donna (Alex Hairston), who starts nailing hit after hit, capturing the fledgling sound of disco in the early 1970s. Finally, there is Diva Donna (Dan’yelle Williamson), the peak, fully realized woman who looks back on a life and career well-lived and can still belt with feeling, a soul that oozes with history.
Unfortunately, for all the great featured moments, the narrative never delves too far below the surface, leaving the show’s book feeling banal and incomplete. The script from Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and director Des McAnuff is hollow, with a crisis introduced only to be dealt with and fixed with a quickness. A life as interesting as Summer’s, an international superstar who spanned multiple genres and generations, should certainly dig a whole lot deeper.
That first Donna lives life fast and is clearly a precocious teen. Landing a role in the musical “Hair” and cutting her first album at only 19 in Germany, Summer begins to take Europe by storm, and is positioned perfectly at the dawn of the 1970s, where Donna can step aside and let the Queen of disco take over. “Love to Love You Baby” drops in 1975, and the rest is history.
Despite a sound that represents everything of the disco era, we learn Summer was an unwilling part of the disco monarchy. The girl who first sang at her Boston church, a place where sexual abuse also forced her to grow up quickly, refused to be boxed into a sound. But once the fame came, her talent level allowed for a multiple mixing of genres, and she quickly discovered that being the “Queen” of anything was a great thing. This was a woman who working hard for that money, and carried forward a simple philosophy – “Play each show as your last, and one day you’ll be right.”
Where the show soars mightily is in its choreography, with the great Sergio Trujillo once again taking the reins and stunning the stage with surreal movement. The sugary sweet and sappy early part of the 1960s turned into the hippie movement later in the decade. But when the 1970s hit, with a heavy dose of sexuality and androgyny, people were ready to party. Trujillo’s movement, on another fantastic set by Salinas native Robert Brill, is sharp, seductive and sultry. The costumes of Paul Tazewell stun, with sleek suits and badass fedoras flying all over the stage with a female ensemble who didn’t come to play.
While the choreography is top-notch, each Donna took their turn in the spotlight, delivering ubiquitous hits from the Summer collection. “Bad Girls,” “On the Radio,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Last Dance” all do what they’re supposed to do. And Williamson as the final Donna drills home some scintillating gospel. Summer passed away in 2012, but lives on with her sparkling legacy, especially in moments like these.
At the end of 100 minutes, there’s an incomplete feeling, as if it’s all just some heavenly highlights and traumatic lowlights strung together. There is certainly a more nuanced view of the torture and triumph of the life of Donna Summer, and an expansive book and production numbers that linger longer would make the show go from surface to spectacular.
“Summer” doesn’t need to move to Fall so suddenly.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Broadway San Francisco presents “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”
Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff
Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others
Directed by Des McAnuff
The Word: A thin book is the weak link in this otherwise delightful production about the life of the Queen of Disco. The choreography and costumes steal the show.
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
The Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $56 – $256
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com