In the 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. “My God, Commander Lewis, couldn’t you have packed anything from this century?”
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 depth as the lyrics to “Love to Love You Baby” and fly by at the speed of and with the same lack of emotion as “Faster and Faster to Nowhere.” And yet, three women – Dan’yelle Williamson, Alex Hairston and Olivia Elease Hardy – are called upon to play Summer at various stages in her life.
It’s a good thing, actually, for these women are abundantly talented. They are absolutely terrific singers, actors and dancers and their efforts to entertain the audience with 23 songs and nearly as many production numbers are nicely complemented by Paul Tazewell’s gorgeous Summer-esque costuming and Howell Binkley’s dazzling lighting design.
They and the ensemble that surrounds them are so talented that we are almost oblivious to the poor writing that turns everything spoken into a cliché requiring underscoring from a mere five-piece band, under Amanda Morton’s direction, to provide the sentiment.
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 is remarkably and successfully 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, who is none of these things. This appears to be commentary on the male-dominated power brokers who ran the music industry in the 1970s and 1980s, and attempts to capture the androgyny that surrounded the disco era, but the execution is as muddled as the message.
It is little wonder why this musical had such a limited shelf-life 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 love the nightlife, don’t got to boogie on the disco 'round, oh yeah, will likely do the same.