Back in 1978, Richard Maltby Jr. unleashed onto the world a little musical called Ain’t Misbehavin’. This was perhaps the first really successful biographical jukebox musical — a musical that used the catalog of a particular artist to tell the lifestory of that artist. Shortly after that musical hit there were similar shows, from Jelly’s Last Jam to Eubie to … you get the idea. In the modern era, the biographical jukebox has seen a resurgence with successful shows such as Jersey Boys. Almost every pop star out there is seeing their catalog mined for a potential show. Some end up as fictional stories with the pop catalog grafted on, such as the recent Head Over Heels which mined the catalog of the Go-Gos. But the biographical jukebox remains a steady contender. A number of been recently on Broadway, such as The Cher Show or the just opened Tina … and one of the more recent instances has ended up at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) (until November 24) — Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Guess where we were last night?
If you are of my generation, you know Donna Summer well. Her music hit the airwaves in the US in 1975 — when I was in high school. I couldn’t go to a high school dance of that era (not that I went to many) where it didn’t close with “The Last Dance”. It was ubiquitous. So it was clear that mixing her music with a Broadway show would hit clearly at the heart of the current theatregoers: those adults aged 55 to 65. It was a no-brainer. Nostalgia is a strong pull at the box office, and judging by the audience we saw at the Pantages we saw last night it works. Older primarily white women in spandex glitter abounded.
And the mention of no-brainers brings us back to the biographic jukebox, and their greatest problem: the underlying book. For while the music may be popular and the show wonderful when viewed as a nostalgic dance concert, the real question is whether it stands up a musical theatre. That success depends on the book writers — in this case, Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff. In this case: it really doesn’t stands up as theatre. It is a mile wide and an inch deep: it doesn’t really give you any deep insight into its main characters, and the other characters in the life of Donna Summer that shaped who she is are only superficially drawn and brought to life.
Part of the problem here is the conceit used to tell the story. As is often done, the main subject is divided into three individual: child, young adult, and adult — or as they are called here, Duckling Donna, DIsco Donna, and Diva Donna. A similar approach, from what I understand, was taken in The Cher Show. The problem is: the adjectives here capture the superficial nature of the division: instead of looking at the whole character, they have amplified aspects of her life for the sake of storytelling. In doing this, and in making the story centered in that way, any character growth that might fuel the story is either lost, or boiled to the top where it is just skimmed away.
“Story” is a key word here. Musicals succeed where there is a story that demands the music in its retelling. The music, which is a key factor in telling the story, bursts out with story. It isn’t incidental or superficially related. But, for the most part, the music used in Summer is only lightly connected with the story on the stage. It rarely comes from the time; it rarely moves the story forward by itself. If you could delete all the jukebox songs (leaving just the spoken book) and the show still makes sense, that music isn’t integral. In this case, the music is rarely integral. In fact, I think the only integral song in the show is “She Works Hard for the Money”.
Ultimately, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, while entertaining, is (in the parlance of [title of show]), very “donuts for dinner” — entertaining in the moment, but the fulfillment is not very long lasting. There’s lots of fluffy sweet carbohydrates, but very little meat.
That doesn’t mean the author’s don’t try to provide that meat. There is a strong emphasis, especially in the middle of the show, on the notion of empowerment of women — in particular the fact that women artists should be paid the same as male artists. There’s also a sharp commentary on the #metoo aspects of Donna Summer’s story: sexual abuse or harassment both at the hands of her childhood pastor and by executives at Casablanca records. But it, like the supporting characters, is superficial. It is mentioned once briefly, and how it shaped Donna Summer into the artist that she was is never explored.
Ruminating on the superficiality a bit more: The show presents Donna Summer’s life as being much like the music that made her famous: a catchy dance tune that was fun in the moment, but doesn’t have long lasting significance. It is popular and light and frothy, but is ultimately cotton candy.
The show is notable in one other aspect: it’s ensemble. More than any other show that I’ve seen, this show has made the effort to emphasize the women. Most of the tertiary male roles (there are no primary male roles) are played by ensemble members, and for the most part, those members are women. I’ve commented before on the problems I have with men dressing as women to play women’s roles for the broad laugh. Here, the women stepped into play the men’s roles, but not for laughs but in an androgynous sense. As a man watching this, this spoke to female empowerment and as the central notion of the story, as well as the fact that for much of her career, Summer’s music spoke to that audience (and the incident that broke that connection is specifically — and rightly — addressed). I’m curious how women watching the show perceived that ensemble emphasis. It was certainly different.
Two additional performance notes: (1) There are points at times where the ensemble is supposedly playing music, and even (at one point) Diva Donna is playing. For the most part, it is clear they are not: they are holding the violins wrong, there is no key movement on the piano although finger gestures appear right, there is no movement on the guitar necks and no connection of electric guitars to the speakers, there is no finger movement on the valves of the saxes. Prop instruments on stage are annoying. It did appear, however, that at point they did have the real keyboardist on stage, as well as the drummer and perhaps the guitar. That was good to see. (2) There is one point where Neil Bogart’s funeral occurs, supposedly at Hillside. They were carrying calla lilies, which is a flower that is not used at Jewish cemeteries due to its Christian symbolism; they also portrayed mourners in white with no cria ribbons. Again, not something one would see at a Jewish cemetery. Given that the writers weren’t Jewish, one can understand the mistake; surely someone on the production or design team would have caught that.
Des McAnuff‘s direction kept the show moving at a brisk pace — one might say with a disco beat. The show moved from incident to incident with little space to catch your breath in between. His direction of the scenic was similar, with view traditional set pieces or props, and heavy use of screens and projections (although in a very different sense than in Anastasia — here they were much more abstracted, as befits the 1970s). He worked with the acting team to bring out strong concert style performance; but with a superficial book, there was very little depth to bring out in the story. The movement, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, was similarly brisk and had a strong disco feel. As to its accuracy as real disco moves I cannot say. There are some things about my youth that I either never learned or have blocked out. But it was entertaining.
In the lead performance positions were the Donnas: Dan’yelle Williamson (⭐FB, FB) Diva Donna / Mary Gaines, Alex Hairston (FB) Disco Donna; and Olivia Elease Hardy (FB) Duckling Donna / Mimi. All give strong performance and sing beautifully. Perhaps the most notable is Hardy, given her lack of experience. She’s a rising senior at U Michigan, and I couldn’t really find any local or other credits for her. For such a young and new performer to be giving such a strong performance is quite noteworthy. As for the others, Hairston gets the bulk of the disco moves and handles those well, although her visual resemblance to the other Donnas is slight. Williamson is very strong of voice and dance.
The male roles in this cast are primarily secondary and tertiary. At the secondary level are: John Gardiner (FB) Neil Bogart / Sommelier / Gunther; Erick Pinnick (FB) Andrew Gaines / Doctor; and Steven Grant Douglas (⭐FB, FB) Bruce Sudano. The tertiary men (because they are also in the ensemble) are: Jay Garcia (FB) Brian / Helmuth Sommer / Ensemble and Sir Brock Warren (FB) Pastor / Ensemble. None of these characters are drawn that deeply; unsurprisingly, none of them also have featured vocal tracks. Thinking back, the ones that left the greatest impressions were Warren due to his unique look and bearing, and Douglas for the way he was able to project some tenderness in what was a lightly written role.
This brings us to the remainder of the ensemble — or should I say female ensemble — as they were all women: Jennifer Byrne (FB) Pete Bellotte / Don Engel / Ensemble, Tamrin Goldberg (FB) Norman Brokaw / Ensemble, Cameron Anika Hill (FB) Young Dara / Amanda / Ensemble, Brooke Lacy (FB) Detective / David Geffen / Bob / Ensemble, Trish Lindström (FB) Joyce Bogart / Ensemble, Dequina Moore (⭐FB, FB) Adult Mary Ellen / Ensemble, Kyli Rae (FB) out at our performance – normally Giorgio Moroder / Ensemble, Crystal Sha’nae (FB) Adult Dara / Ensemble, De’ja Simone (FB) Young Mary Ellen / Brooklyn / Ensemble, Candace J. Washington (FB) Michael / Ensemble, Brittany Nicole Williams Maid / “To Turn the Stone” Soloist / Ensemble. In general, the ensemble provided strong dancing in the background. The actors portraying Donna’s sisters and children were fun to watch and clearly enjoying their roles. I particularly liked Moore and Simone (at least I think that’s who they were — the one in the yellow sweater).
The large music for this show was provided by a small band — again, mostly female. Leading the band was Amanda Morton Music Director / Conductor / Keyboards. Assisting her were Lisa Le May (FB) Assoc. Conductor / Keyboard; Makeena Lee Brick (FB) Keyboard; Larry Esparza (FB) Guitar; and Jesse-Ray Leich (FB) Drums. Other music credits were: Randy Cohen (FB) Synthesizer Programmer; Anixter Rice Music Services (FB) Music Preparation; John Miller (FB) Music Coordinator; Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose Orchestrations; and Ron Melrose Music Supervision and Arrangements. Songs in the show were written by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and the following folks detailed in the back of the program: Joseph Esposito, Edward Hokenson, Bruce Sudano, Pete Bellotte, Keith Diamond, Anthony Smith, Vanessa Robbie Smith, Greg Mathieson, Jim Webb, Bruce Roberts, Harold Faltermeyer, Gregory Allen Kurstin, Danielle A. Brisebois, Evan Kidd Bogart, Jonathan Rotem, Michael Omartian, and from the musical Hair, Galt MacDermot, James Rado, and Gerome Ragni. I am sure that some of the musicians were on stage in a few scenes — in particular, Morton and possibly LeMay or Brick, as well as Leich. I was pleased to see them show pictures of the musicians at the end.
Finally, we turn to the production and creative side. The scenic design of Robert Brill (FB) depended heavily on the Projection Design of Sean Nieuwenhuis, as there were lots of moving screens and projections, and very little in the way of traditional scenery. Perhaps greater scenic aspects were provided by Paul Tazewell (FB)’s costume design and Charles G. LaPointe (FB)’s hair and wig design. There was only real one costuming flaw, which only someone growing up in that era would catch: back in the 1970s, bra straps and undergarments were not intentionally visible — according to my wife, one would go without first. Howell Binkley (FB)’s lighting generally was good, but I felt there was an overuse of strobe lights — be forewarned if you are strobe sensitive. Gareth Owen (FB)’s sound wasn’t overpowering — a fear that I had; however, there were two or three songs where the bass beat shook the cough out of me. Other production credits: Steve Rankin Fight Director; Charley Layton Dialect Coach; David S. Cohen Stage Manager / Fight Captain; Jenifer A. Shenker Asst Stage Manager; Michael Bello Assoc Director; Jennifer Laroche Assoc. Choreographer; Bruce Sudano Story Consultant; NETworks Presentations Production Management; Michael Sanfilippo Company Manager; Ralph Stan Lee (FB) Production Stage Management; Dodger Management Group General Management; Tara Rubin Casting – Felicia Rudolph CSA Casting.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) until November 24. If you are nostalgic for the disco era, and want a fun musical that will help you relive those times, this is the musical for you. If you can’t stand disco, or want a story with a stronger book, consider skipping this one. Go see Miracle on 34th Street up the street instead.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Tonight brings The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Next weekend is open due to Stiches SoCal, although I might still book a show. November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks.
December is getting busy, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The weekend after ACSAC brings an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB). I also have a hold for December 21 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild.
Looking to early 2020: most of the January is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!) The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March comes in like a lamb, with the first two weekends (2/29 and 3/7) being quiet… but goes out like a Lion. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner; the 3rd Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last bringing Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!