Donna Summer might actually have had a more dramatic life than Fanny Brice, if Broadway musicals are any evidence. In “Funny Girl,” Brice becomes a star and marries a gambler who embarrasses her by going to jail.
In “Summer,” which opened Monday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Summer becomes a star, marries and divorces a guy who beats her up, remembers being sexually abused by a pastor as a teenager, finds herself dependent on little blue pills, attempts suicide, finds Jesus, insults her homosexual fan base and diddles herself while writhing on the floor to simulate orgasms for her first hit single, “Love to Love You Baby.”
For that last bit of business, Summer does ask that the men in the recording control booth look the other way so she can jerk off in private. She doesn’t ask anyone in the Lunt-Fontanne to look the other way.
The many traumas in Summer’s life receive one scene each, with the exception of the abusive husband and the pills. They get two each. In other words, the book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff doesn’t develop so much as it lists. Interspersed are the many songs the singer made famous before her death in 2012. Since “Summer” is very much a concert, the songs don’t help to tell the story. They do help to break up the monotony, not that the music itself is in any way varied.
Summer complains about being called the Queen of Disco. Back in the late 1970s, she feared that dance music was doomed, so reinvented herself with “Bad Girls” and “She Works Hard for the Money,” which sound just like disco classics. It’s not much of a creative trajectory that takes an artist from “Love to Love You, Baby” to “Hot Stuff.”
What brings much-needed variety to “Summer” are the extraordinary singing voices of the three actresses who portray the star at various stages of her life: LaChanze, Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever, who is double-cast as one of Summer’s three daughters. DeBose plays the star in her heyday, while LaChanze gets stuck narrating the show, playing Summer’s mother and doing most of the explaining for the star’s younger born-again self.
Which brings us to the Summer’s debacle with her gay fan base. The book of “Summer” blows off her comments about AIDS by turning them into a blithe “Adam and Steve” joke. In fact, ACT-UP and others boycotted the singer’s concerts. It was yet another example of someone using religion to flex her moral superiority.
Visually, “Summer” provides a few gems. Although Robert Brill’s sets and Sean Nieuwenhuis’s projections are fairly bare-bones by Broadway standards, they offer a glimpse at the portraits Summer painted during her semi-retirement. Who knew the singer was the Margaret Keane of German expressionism?
The chorus of “Summer” is female, at times all done up in the kind of male drag that might have sent the real star into one of her religion-inspired meltdowns. Those performers, decked out in Paul Tazewell’s costumes, give the show a nice retro music-video look, as choreographed by Sergio Trujillo under the direction of Des McAnuff.
Unfortunately, Trujillo and McAnuff’s handling of the three Donnas looks downright lame. Three little white boxes keep popping up from the stage floor, raising each performer a few feet higher or letting each of them sink out of sight at the switch of a button. Those mechanics are an apt metaphor for the show itself.