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WEEKEND REVIEWS : Pop : Disco Diva Summer Proves Hot as Ever

August 07, 1995|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Donna Summer's name was a powerful magnet on the marquee in the late 1970s, when she turned out some of the most appealing and well-crafted dance-minded records of the era.

But is there still an audience for the one-time "Queen of Disco" at a time when pop music is dominated by grunge and hip-hop?

Absolutely.

Summer's music remains such a lure that even Alicia Silverstone, the au courant sensation of "Clueless," joined the capacity audience Friday night at the Universal Amphitheatre--an audience so enthusiastic that, at times, you didn't know whether you were attending a concert or an exercise class.

Four-time Grammy winner Summer, who is touring for the first time in the '90s, received a standing ovation as she walked onstage wearing a gown as sparkling as a disco-era mirror ball.

As soon as fans heard her commanding, evocative voice and the lilting, therapeutic dance beat of such songs as "Dim All the Lights" and "On the Radio," they cheered and danced and sang along so energetically that many collapsed in their chairs at the end of each number to catch their breath.

Invariably, however, the next song--be it the melodramatic swirl of "MacArthur Park" or the sensual heat of "I Feel Love"--was enough to get the crowd back on its feet.

And so it went with the audience for 90 minutes: up and down, up and down through such bouncy Top 10 memories as "Hot Stuff," "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" and--ultimately--the rousing finale "Last Dance."

Unfortunately, the show itself was also up and down, starting with the evening's opening act, comedian Tommy Davidson.

Like Davidson's humor (which touched on everything from boyhood memories to the Simpson trial to the sidelights of square dancing), Summer's production touches lacked any sense of cohesive vision.

The staging of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," with its hastily assembled balcony touches, seemed tacky, and a lengthy diva skit was simply interminable.

By contrast, the most affecting moment (apart from her hits) was the intimate version of "Amazing Grace." Backed only by piano on the gospel standard, Summer displayed a vocal purity and character that showed she is by no means limited to the upbeat material associated with her.

At the end of the evening, it was clear that Summer's singing remains exquisite and the hits--served up by with considerable flourish by an army of musicians, including an 18-piece orchestra--still lift your spirits.

In re-establishing her credibility with contemporary audiences, Summer should focus on those strengths and leave the Vegas-lounge instincts to disco nostalgia acts.

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