"Summer"

Dan’yelle Williamson (center) and company

In the recent film “The Martian” starring Matt Damon, astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on the surface of Mars, but he is very much alive. While salvaging through the things his colleagues left behind in order to assess his resources for survival, he comes to realize that his only source of music is Commander Lewis’ vast collection of disco.

“I’m definitely going to die up here,” Watney tells his video journal. 

If you attend the newly touring “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” – a bio-musical about the life, times and tunes of the late-1970s/early-1980s disco icon – and are not a huge fan of the music or the artist, you will certainly relate to Watney’s sense of cultural deprivation. But even disco enthusiasts will find that, like Mars, there is a lung-compressing absence of atmosphere and not nearly enough gravity in this one-act roughly 100-minute minor work by co-writers Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, who also directs.

The show seems built so as not to overburden an audience with information or overstay its welcome, as facts about Summer’s life are presented with the same shallowness as the lyrics to “Love to Love You Baby” and fly by at the speed of and with the same lack of direction as her song “Faster and Faster to Nowhere.”

Three women – Dan’yelle Williamson, Alex Hairston and Olivia Elease Hardy – are called upon to play Summer at various stages in her life.  This is a good thing, for they are absolutely terrific singers, actors and dancers, and entertain the audience with 23 songs and nearly as many full-blown production numbers.  Everything they do is nicely complemented by Paul Tazewell’s gorgeous Summer-esque costuming and Howell Binkley’s dazzling lighting design, which helps transport us to Summer's time and temperament.

The three Summers and the ensemble that surrounds them during these numbers are so talented that we are almost oblivious to the poor writing that turns everything spoken into a cliché requiring emotion-amplifying underscoring from a five-piece band under Amanda Morton’s direction.

We almost fail to notice the poster art that serves as Robert Brill’s scenic design on an otherwise barren stage and the redundancy in Sergio Trujillo’s high-intensity but low-impact choreography.

And we are almost too distracted to notice or take offense at the double and sometimes triple casting that finds Hardy, who plays the youngest Donna, also playing Donna’s daughter and Williamson, who plays the oldest Donna, also playing Donna’s mother. There might be something interesting, conceptually, happening here to justify this creative choice, but it succeeds at being elusive.

So is the reason for women ensemble members playing men, including Kyli Rae as Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder, Brooke Lacy as record executive David Geffen, and Jennifer Byrne as attorney Don Engle. “This may seem disingenuous coming from a middle-aged white guy like me,” says talent agent Norman Brokaw, who is played by Tamrin Goldberg and none of these things.

Again, there might be something meaningful behind such casting, such as commentary on the male-dominated power brokers who ran the music industry back in the 1970s or an attempt to capture the androgyny that surrounded the disco era of the 1980s.  But the execution is as muddled as the potential message.

It is little wonder that this musical lasted only eight months on Broadway.

In “The Martian,” Mark Watney counts the minutes until rescue or death. Ticket holders for the touring “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” who don’t necessarily "" will likely do the same.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio SPJ best critic.

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