She was known as Queen of Disco, but Donna Summer went through most of her life hating the label.
In "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, you can't miss that message, delivered mostly by LaChanze as Diva Donna, one of three actresses who portray the legendary singer in this biomusical that, when you cut to the chase, is little more than a glorified concert.
The show, which Summer was working on before her death from lung cancer in 2012, chronicles her life from childhood days in Boston, where her discovery in a church choir (that would be Duckling Donna, Storm Lever in her Broadway debut) ultimately leads to her impressive recording career (Ariana DeBose plays Disco Donna.). But the timeline, from early days in recording studios, to abusive husbands and ministers, to bouts of depression and grave illness, is hard to follow, bouncing illogically over the years.
Further confusing things, LaChanze sometimes takes on the role of Summer's mom, Mary Gaines, and Lever also appears as Summer's daughter, Mimi. On top of that, director Des McAnuff, who also contributed to the book, chose to have the women of the ensemble play most of the male roles, a nod to the gender equality Summer fought so hard for, to be sure, but in this case simply adding to the muddle.
What saves all this, of course, is the celebration of the music, with a parade of hits starting with her first biggie, the mildly controversial "Love to Love You Baby" (many references to the orgasmic nature of the song), and on to Billboard toppers such as "MacArthur Park," "On the Radio" and "She Works Hard for the Money." Never mind that these songs sometimes show up without moving the story along, as when a chorus line of hookers appears for no discernible reason other than to sing "Bad Girls."
There are moments of pure emotion in the show, notably LaChanze's stunning "Friends Unknown," that brought a midshow standing ovation when I saw it. And all three Donnas, resplendent in a magnificent array of mostly royal blue costumes by Paul Tazewell, are at the top of their vocal game, raising the roof, especially with the full-on Studio 54 version of "Hot Stuff," complete with disco balls and an endless supply of silver confetti.
By the time the show closes with (what else?) "Last Dance," the audience is up dancing. And even Diva Donna has come to terms with her Disco Queen legacy, saying simply, "There are worse things they could call you."