Theatre Review: ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’ at RBTL Auditorium Theatre

The cast of “Summer : The Donna Summer Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”, which began its national tour in Rochester, NY this week, starts out with a diva-level performance and a bass beat that you feel in your heart. The opening number, “The Queen is Back”, promises that this is going to be a hard-driving performance—but changes gears to be much more subtle through the middle and then changes back again at end.  

The show follows the footprint of jukebox musicals such as “Beautiful: The Carol King Story”, and “Mama Mia” which use the star’s portfolio of hit songs to tell the story of their life. “Summer” takes the audience through Donna’s childhood in the 50’s which were grounded by a loving family and church; her early career in the 70’s where she had a ground floor seat creating the disco genre with songs like “Love to Love You Baby” and “MacArthur Park”; and culminating in her diva years when she develops the strength to take better control of her career and her life. The part of Donna Summer is played by three actresses—one for her childhood (Olivia Elease Hardy), one for her mid-career (Alex Hairston) and one for her diva years (Dan’yelle Williamson). There were scenes in which the director craftily put multiple Donnas on stage to sing duets and trios together. All three actresses had powerful voices that filled the Auditorium Theatre to its dome but it was diva Donna, and her powerful command of her instrument, who was arguably most reminiscent of Donna Summer.

The emphasis on Donna’s irritation at being associated with her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” and being known as the “Queen of Disco”—as she shot up the charts and began to live a life in luxury—seemed a bit hollow. On the other hand, the treatment given to Donna’s childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a church member, mid-life physical abused by her first husband, and the devastating mishandling of her finances seemed to deserve more gravitas than was given. There was a very brief mea culpa moment in the show that revisited anti-gay statements made by Donna during a performance in 1983 that garnered strong public backlash. This incident was actually a protracted story at the time that stained the icon’s image, especially among some of her biggest fans in the gay community. The story also included little-known or forgotten tid-bits about the star’s life like when her managers originally wanted to have Cher record “Bad Girls” and Donna’s lukewarm attempt at acting in “Thank God it’s Friday”. 

The vocals, disco-funk music (Music Director, Amanda Morton) choreography (Choreographer, Sergio Trujillo), and costumes (Costume Designer, Paul Tazewell) will thrill any Donna Summer fan. The final two numbers, “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” sent the audience out the doors dancing and singing their way to their cars (I know I wasn’t the only one).

Run Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission

Age Recommendation: 12+

 “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” runs until October 5, 2019 at the Rochester Broadway Theatre League Auditorium Theatre. For tickets and more information, go to http://www.rbtl.org.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Oklahoma!’ at JCC CenterStage

Oklahoma!,” written in the early 1940’s, portrays a small farming town in the Indian Territory before Oklahoma received statehood in 1906. It highlights old fashioned ideals such as men are brave, women have their place, and this social contract is the underpinning of a successful and strong country. As the territory marches toward the formal veneer of statehood amidst general lawlessness, the men and women are grappling with upholding a veneer of propriety amidst feelings of love and lust.

The singing was wonderful throughout.

The two main characters are a farm girl, Laurey Williams, and a young rancher, Curly McLain, who would like to be her beau. Laurey (Abby Rice), and her friend Ado Annie Carnes (Jennie Gilardoni) are of marrying age but have very different perspectives on relationships with men. Laurey is a bit naïve, and is charmed by a farmhand with a dangerous reputation, Jud Fry (Benjamin Pesce). Laurey feels Curly (Jordan Bachmann) is a little too cock-sure and agrees to go to the box social dance with Jud to spite him. Ado Annie has been playing the field a bit while her beau, Will Parker (Chris Martin), is away in Kansas City. A peddler, Ali Hakim (Drew Jensen), and she have been flirting to the point that Ado Annie’s father strongly suggests they marry. Will returns to town in time for the box social dance hoping to claim Ado Annie’s hand.

The plot follows these two lovers’ triangles through darkness, fear, bawdiness, laughter, and one long and strange laudanum-induced dream sequence that was a little like how I imagine an acid trip might feel. The classic songs we all know, even if you have never seen “Oklahoma!,” weave through the show accompanied by lively dancing and exciting, acrobatic fight scenes. The singing was wonderful throughout. Mr. Bachmann and Ms. Rice performed beautiful renditions of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” The live musical accompaniment—including banjo, guitar, and violin—was just the right touch to bring this musical down on the farm. Go see it and absorb the optimism of young people marrying and states being formed amid the chaos of life.

Approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission).

“Oklahoma!” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at JCC CenterStage Theater in Rochester. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Mauritius’ at Blackfriars Theatre

Did you know there is a seedy underbelly of the stamp collecting world? Me neither. The plot of this play sounded almost like a spoof and I wondered what I was in for. I invited a good friend to come along for the ride. It turns out her father was an avid stamp collector. She was intrigued.

The play centers on a young woman named Jackie, played by Fiona Criddle, whose mother recently died and left her a stamp collection, and apparently a boat-load of debt. Jackie knows nothing about stamps and ends up turning to three men who possess varying intensities of dubious and nefarious intent toward Jackie and her stamps. Enter the estranged half-sister, Mary (Stephanie Sheak), who believes the stamps belong to her.

In this play emotions run high when it is discovered that there are some insanely valuable stamps in the collection. The most dangerous of the three men, Sterling (J. Simmons), is a menacing figure who is willing to pay a high price for the stamps. Dennis (Danny Hoskins), is a slippery operator who sees a potential payday if he can manipulate Jackie and control Sterling. Philip (Jeff Siuda), the professional philatelist, has some sort of dark history with Sterling that helps him ease into an unethical position. The hard-to-pin-down, Mary, is difficult to like. She tries to manipulate Jackie, and no one quite believes she wants the stamps for their sentimental value.

Ms. Criddle’s performance has depth and credibility portraying someone who has had to deal with trauma and desperately needs a way to emerge from its aftermath. Mr. Hoskins  sensitively handles his character as he vacillates between wanting a big payout and beginning to care for Jackie.

During the play I wondered if my companion’s knowledge of stamps helped her see the twists in the plot before I did. Because the story had so much to do with the psychological and emotional states of each character, knowing about stamps was not much of an edge. There are many mysterious sub-texts hinted at and not fully explained. The parallels between human lives and rare stamps are clearly drawn in how their flaws, mysteries, back stories, and desirability are all a little nebulous–and the effects of which can change with time and memory.

All in all, it was a great opening night performance in a cosy inviting theatre.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 min, plus a 15-minute intermission

“Mauritius” runs from March 22 – April 7 at Blackfriars Theatre in Rochester NY. For more information, click here.