McAnuff and Friends Hail Disco Queen Donna Summers at LJ Playhouse

I must have blinked, because I don’t remember the Age of Disco very well. I recall crowded and smoky dance joints and fantasy duds and always that beat thumping away beneath the complicated instrumental filigree. But I can’t remember many artist names. And maybe only a couple of songs.

“Donna Summer” sounds familiar. But I could never match her with a specific song. Or even a look.

After seeing Summer, the new musical premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse, I wasn’t really much more enlightened. But I sure was entertained.

It’s an ideal gig for Des McAnuff and some of his favorite collaborators: Spunky kid makes it in show-biz thanks to drive, fresh beauty, talent and a lot of splashy musical numbers. Ultra-hip people in cool minimal digs, attitude in abundance and always that beat-beat-beat.

Ariana DeBose and company in the La Jolla Playhouse musical Summer. Kevin Berne Photo

Des has a way of moving through these time-passing shows with a military precision – squared corners, sleek confidence, springy step – that keeps the show in a froth, especially when meshing with an ace commercial choreographer like Sergio Trujillo fueling all that exquisite little connecting tissue.

Yet Des also usually brings something fresh, even when its unrelated. This time, it’s “gender out the winder” as supporting players, dressed to runway chic by Paul Tazewell, portray an assortment of supporting roles with little reference to age, color, sex, build, whatever. Sure, it’s sometimes a bit confusing. So the lovely chocolate femme dancer just explains, “To a middle-aged white guy like me…” and everything moves right along.

And some of the scandals – the preacher chasing the devout girl – seem imported from today’s gossip mills, new-minted clichés drying on the line.

Des, who wrote this script with Colman Domingo and Robert Cary, smooths everything out to fit the show’s track, pausing only to poke at some hiccups in the story of “the Queen of Disco.” (She insists that she never wanted that title but agrees, “it’s nice to be queen of something”.) Sometimes the authors go on a bit longer than necessary, usually when sentiment is involved, but there’s always another song just waiting.

Ah yes, those songs. Poke around on the Internet and you’ll find Miss Summer recorded all sorts of stuff, from light opera to early hip-hop. Most of it was squeezed through the disco pasta-maker into product of many shapes but only one flavor, ready for whatever sauce.

It takes a page in the program to list the 30 or so songwriters who contributed to the 23 numbers assembled by the cagey Ron Melrose as a score, performed with driving aplomb by conductor Victoria Theodore and four mates, three fewer than the total crew that programmed the arrangements.

And it’s instructive that the two musical highlights of the evening came from non-disco sources: Jim Webb’s melodramatic “MacArthur Park” and a second-string song from the musical theatre masterpiece Hair, “White Boys (Black Boys).”

It was Hair that took LaDonna Adrian Gaines from her Boston girlhood right into the big-time: She got cast in one of the many road companies and ended up in Europe, where fresh black musical theatre kids could write their own ticket. She married a German actor named Helmut Sommer and acquired a daughter, the German version of her ultimate stage name and a budding rep.

If they loved her in Europe, they loved her even more back in the states where she whizzed through a busy decade, earning and losing fortunes, breaking some glass ceilings and cementing a lasting marriage with singer-songwriter Bruce Sudano. Two more daughters, a surprising second career as a painter and some comebacks distinguished the end of her life at 63, from lung cancer, in 2012.

Hers was a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, without much of the last. This show has her quipping impishly that she spent “…years on her knees, about half of it praying.”

LaChanze in Summer, the musical premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse. Kevin Berne Photo

To keep things moving, Des uses three actresses in the title role, young Storm Lever as the girl, Ariana DeBose as the mid-career disco queen and the marvelous veteran LaChanze as the glamorous legend. They weave in and out on schedule, appearing together or alone on the convenient pedestals which always show up as needed in Robert Brill’s polished set. LaChanze also plays Donna’s mom and Lever, her first daughter, but these matters have a way of folding together as smoothly as a card shark’s deck.

It’s pointless to focus on any of the other 18 actors. They all look great and do splendidly, however contrary to type they may be working at the moment.

Also needless is calling more attention to the steel-spined lighting design of Howell Binkley and the flying of all those clean-cut white on white geometric clouds in Robert Brill’s set that chide the idling eye.

I really should mention, though, the truly awesome stage combat fight between DeBose and a sinister German played by Aaron Krohn. Wow. Just wow, fight director Steve Rankin.

Three guesses who wins.


Continues in the UCSD Mandell Weiss Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and at 7 p.m. Sundays, extended through Dec. 24, 2017.




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La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive La Jolla CA 92037 USA Work Phone: 858.550.1010 Website: La Jolla Playhouse website
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