Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The good time is due to two key factors. First, those eminently danceable Donna Summer tunes, several of which were written by Summer herself. And second, a cast filled with talented singers, led by De'Ja Simone, Alex Hairston, and Dan'yelle Williamson, who play Summer at three stages of her life: Duckling Donna (as a child she apparently felt like an ugly duckling); Disco Donna, and Diva Donna, respectively. None try to imitate the Summer sound, but none of the three hold anything back in their performances, either, letting their soulful voices fill the Golden Gate Theatre to the very back row of the balcony. (Kudos to the tech team at the Golden Gatethe sound for this touring production is perfect: powerful, yet retaining optimal fidelity.)
The show begins with Diva Donna presenting herself as though the show were a concert. Or, as Williamson puts it, "the concert of a lifetime." Fittingly, we are soon transported back to Boston in the 1950s, when Duckling Donna is making her debut singing in church, putting on shows for her family and friends, and ultimately cutting school to take the train to New York to audition. There she is cast in a road company of Hair, a gig that takes her to Munich where she not only learns German, but meets producing partners Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte (Kyli Rae and Jennifer Byrne, in drag, though why these and several other male roles are played by women was lost on me), who help turn her songs into disco classics.
The show caroms back and forth through time, creating a crazy quilt of moments from Summer's life: she lies on the floor to get in the mood for singing "Love to Love You, Baby," she's overwhelmed by stardom, she's a witness to violence, she's a victim of violence, she learns to drive, she takes up painting. Sadly, though, in the book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff (who also directs), none of this coalesces into anything resembling a compelling story. There's no sense of foreshadowing for the darker events of her life, so they seem to come out of nowhere. Her dependence on a prescription pill is mentioned early in the show, and again much later when her sisters coax her into recovery, but save for one late night moment in the recording studio when everyone else is exhausted (Really? Midnight and musicians are tired?) and Donna wants to keep going, her drug use is forgotten. Similarly, Diva Donna starts the show by engaging the audience (she asks the balcony patrons if their seats are really "that much cheaper?), but though she and the other two Donnas continue to address us, it never has the same personal touch. The show also whitewashes the controversy Summer raised when she evidently coined the phrase "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" and, allegedly dismissing the AIDS crisis, alienated the gay audience that was such a big part of her fan base.
The story is helped along by titles projected at the top of the set, establishing where each scene takes place, since the set design (by Robert Brill) does only minimal work in that regard. In addition to furnishings and props that roll or fly in and out (e.g., a living room suite, a mixing board, a studio mic), images (too many of them cheesy and low-res) appear on a large screen upstage and three square screens that fly in and outthough one always seemed to lag behind the other two.
Fortunately, there's always the music. Dance music (a term Summer never liked, apparently, feeling it was used "as some kind of insult") succeeds when it gets you to move. Though no one in the audience on opening night got up to danceeven though Diva Donna invited us to do sothere were plenty of heads bobbing and toes tapping in the Golden Gate. Even mine.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical runs through December 29, 2019, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56-$256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, visit thedonnasummermusical.com.