Seeing “SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical” at the Colonial Theatre this week made me long for six more weeks of WINTER. The show which attempts to tell the story of Boston’s own LaDonna Adrian Gaines who became the Queen of Disco, is a fiasco from beginning to end.
In addition to limp direction and limper choreography, the book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Tony Award® winner Des McAnuff is the main culprit. The show takes Ms. Summer’s barrier-breaking, dramatic life story, with its triumph and heartache, domestic violence, and child sexual abuse–and delivers it like a random grocery list. There’s no dramatic momentum, coherence, or chronology; we barely understand who any of the secondary characters are, so sketchy are their appearances on stage. And where was all the signature couples’ disco dancing?? Even three leads playing Donna at different stages, all the while singing their hearts out, were unable to breathe life into this mangled pile of miscellaneous parts. Despite some 20 hit songs including “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Love to Love You Baby,” and the inevitable “Last Dance”– which should have had us on our feet a la MAMA MIA–the show lay there, lifeless. Donna Summer deserved better. Presented by Broadway in Boston through March 6.
In sharp contrast right next door at Emerson’s Paramount Center is a show so divine, so full of life, I left buoyant, full of hope, and love–a salve in these miserable times. DREAMING ZENZILE tells the life story of the late, legendary singer and political activist Zenzile Miriam Makeba who rose from poverty and apartheid in South Africa to become “Mama Afrika,” the voice of a people using her soaring musical talent and spirit for social justice. Somi Kakoma in the title role is a marvel; she not only brings her stirring and remarkably malleable vocals to the part, but also serious acting chops, AND she also wrote the show!
DREAMING ZENZILE features a live onstage jazz band and an ensemble of four singer, actor, dancers who weave in and out of the action, expressing in seamless movement (Marjani Forte-Saunders/choreography) and song the sublime forces which shaped Makeba’s life: her family, lovers, partners, celebrities, political oppressors, and ancestors whose spirits are felt in the theater. I kid you not. Something magical is happening on that stage and Kakoma channels it all from the depths of her humanity to the ends of her soul. Supple direction by Lileana Blain-Cruz effortlessly propels the action. Heavenly video (Ricardo Hernandez/scene design) floats above the players. The musical palette (Herve Samb/musical director) is a dream tapestry of reinterpretations of Makeba’s catalogue, original and African folk songs, and jazz standards. The show accomplishes what it sets out to do– it’s a spiritual journey of awakening and reconciliation rooted in Makeba’s own history which then transcends her unique story to move us in the troubling here and now. I know it’s snowing out there, and brutal forces have launched their latest attack on freedom-loving people, but do yourself a favor–shovel out and go see DREAMING ZENZILE before it closes THIS SUNDAY February 27. It will lift you up.