The Donna Summer Tribute Site

Billboard Online's Donna Summer: A Benefit for the Gay Men's Health Crisis

(GMHC)
Carnegie Hall
New York
March 16, 1998
Reviewed by Larry Flick

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 every word.

Larry Flick is Billboard's dance editor.

© 1998 Billboard Magazine

 

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