For a split second, the imposing, ornate walls of Carnegie Hall seemed to
shake. After nearly two hours of mature ovations and controlled excitement
for disco legend Donna Summer, the remarkably well-behaved audience could
no longer be contained. As she began a salacious, guitar-drenched rendition
of "Hot Stuff," fans rushed down the red carpeted aisles toward the stage.
Men whipped off their suit jackets and ties, women (and a smattering of drag
queens) hiked up their skirts and danced. Judging from Summer's giggles,
few things could have pleased the diva more.
The performance proved to reverberate in the minds and hearts of those who
plunked down a sizable chunk of change ($50-$500) to experience Summer in
an unusual, deservedly dignified setting. Although the show was organized
as a fundraiser to benefit the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), it ultimately
served as a shrewdly timed precursor to what could easily be a triumphant
career renaissance for the artist.
In addition to performing an armful of well-preserved classics, Summer unveiled
two tunes from "Ordinary Girl," a stage musical she has written and plans
to debut on Broadway next year. She charmed the hit-hungry audience with
descriptions of the dramatic scenarios surrounding each number, speaking
with the glee of a child at show-and-tell.
The lovely "Not An Ordinary Love Song" twinkled with the pop appeal of a
Disney power ballad, while "My Life" washed over the senses like a sequel
to her classic "Last Dance," its soft, introspective preamble blossoming
into an anthemic dance number. The audience stood frozen, seemingly dissecting
and digesting every syllable, while Summer tore through the song's tale of
self-doubt, pain, and eventual victory. Given the right studio treatment,
"My Life" could transcend its theatrical intentions and introduce pop radio
to a seasoned, decidedly arty Summer.
During the show, Summer lead a 22-piece orchestra and eight-piece pop band
through classics like "This Time I Know It's For Real" and "She Works Hard
For The Money," keeping to a notably adult vibe. The undercurrent of live
strings gave "MacArthur Park" and "Could It Be Magic" wonderfully grand flavors
that presaged Summer's transition into a brief segment of pop standards.
Actually, this portion triggered the evening's most stirring moment, as Summer
dove into "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" with white-knuckled passion. Though
her recorded version of the song didn't quite capture its lyrical essence,
her live reading swelled with heartfelt honesty and occasional irony that
reached far beyond its words. Midway through the number, Summer could barely
be heard over the audience's rising cheers. The song's context of a
controversial, almost messianic ruler professing loyalty to her subjects
took on an undeniably autobiographical twist for the singer. As she touched
the hands of fans while belting the line "I kept my promise, don't keep your
distance," Summer's eyes spoke volumes. The audience understood and appreciated
Larry Flick is Billboard's dance editor.