Anyone who has been to a disco or a wedding in the last 35 or 40 years has heard and danced to Donna Summer. She was rightly known as the Queen of Disco and was the most successful recording artist of the period during her heyday. So, it was inevitable that we would eventually have Summer: The Donna Summer Musical on Broadway.
Judging by the wry faces I got when I told friends I was going to be reviewing Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, as contrasted to the very enthusiastic and packed audience I saw it with, there’s going to be a sharp difference of opinion about this one. I’m going on record – I thumb my nose at my friends. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was very pleased to have seen it.
What Summer: The Donna Summer Musical does brilliantly is remind us why LaDonna Adrian Gaines was the Disco Queen. And why, even today, when the DJ plays “Hot Stuff” or “Last Dance” or “She Works Hard for the Money,” everyone gets on the dance floor. It may not have the most scintillating book, but that’s not why anybody bought tickets. They’re there to enjoy themselves. For many it’s a sweet stroll down memory lane to possibly younger, more carefree days. For others it’s a glimpse into a storied past they’ve only heard about but never experienced.
And experience it you will. From the 23 iconic Donna Summer songs to the glittering disco ball that makes an appearance in the closing scene. Yes, there are hot pants and lamé. And yes, if you look carefully, you will recognize an occasional hustle step or bump in the choreography that will take you right back to your days on the dance floor. But nothing feels dated. The costumes are cheeky and fun and the choreography is fresh and exciting.
Not only are the production values au courant, but the issues and themes are very relevant as well. After the opening song, Diva Donna (LaChanze) tells us “Now, I grew up when women’s roles were changing, I mean really changing, so I figured we might as well take that to the next level.” And she points to the chorus that was dancing behind her where all the men were actually women dressed as men. And in fact, several male roles including that of David Geffen (Mackenzie Bell) & Giorgio Maroder (Kaleigh Cronin) were played by women in men’s clothing. It was so effective, I forgot that the Maroder role was a woman after the first scene with that character. And I never noticed that the Geffen role was a female till I was looking at the Playbill afterwards. In this #MeToo moment I’m happy to report that there are only 6 male cast members in a company of 23 performers. It usually skews the other way. I think Donna would be proud.
They’ve split the role of Donna Summer into three parts to show her at different stages in her life: Diva Donna (LaChanze), Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose) and Duckling Donna (Storm Lever). All three performers are terrific, but LaChanze is simply unmatched vocally. As I write this, it has been announced that she has been nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Could a Tony nomination be far behind? It would make a nice pair to match her 2006 Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for The Color Purple.
On the other hand, Ariana DeBose is a triple threat. She’s an excellent singer, and an extraordinary dancer. She also proves herself as an actress in this role. Donna had a German boyfriend who she couldn’t shake and who followed her to LA. In the musical, in the middle of singing “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” with Diva Donna, DeBose as Disco Donna does a scene where Gunther comes to her house, slaps her around and pulls a gun on her. A S.W.A.T. team rescues her and Disco joins Diva and Duckling and finishes up the song without missing a beat. DeBose was superb.
I think Donna Summer was never given the respect she deserved during her career for her professional accomplishments. At a time when not many women were in power positions in the music industry, Donna was writing her own songs and breaking chart records right and left. In 1979 she was the first woman to have two singles in the top three on Billboard’s Hot 100 when “Bad Girls” hit #1 while “Hot Stuff” was at #3. I could go on but you can Google as well as I can.
Donna Summer started out her career with roles in European productions of the musicals Hair and Porgy and Bess. At the time of her death in 2012 at age 63, she was working with director Des McAnuff on an autobiographical musical that she hoped to take to Broadway. I’m glad that he was able to see her dream come to fruition.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Despite the exciting vocalism of a cast led by the formidable LaChanze, it reduces the late Queen of Disco and pioneer of electronica to a few factoids and song samples that make her seem profoundly inconsequential."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Enough is enough with Broadway jukebox musicals stitched together with threadbare and synthetic stories. And when it comes to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical that goes triple. It took three writers for the bummer of a script for this show at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Fortunately, Summer's numerous dance-o-licious high-energy hits are still as contagious and irresistible as ever — "MacArthur Park," "Heaven Knows," "On the Radio," "Bad Girls," "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)" and "Dim All the Lights.""
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"At its most watchable, the show plays like a barely dramatized adaptation of Summer’s Spotify and Wikipedia pages. But when it’s bad, it’s so, so bad."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Three people admit to writing the musical's rudimentary book: Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and director Des McAnuff, who brought respectability to the jukebox musical with his monster hit Jersey Boys. There's no reason to believe their involvement wasn't motivated by sincere admiration for the subject and her music; McAnuff reportedly had been in conversation with Summer about directing Ordinary Girl, a bio-musical she was developing in her final years, based on her memoir. But the shallowness with which the creative team treats her story is staggering, stringing together dialogue so trite — "Daddy was strict. Loving, but strict," "Turned out free love wasn't so free" — that it trivializes her personal and professional lives with equal efficiency."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"The song lyrics, not the spoken dialogue, are what matter in this show. The lyrics of disco are the language of the late 70s and early 80s — manic, druggy, desperate for a good time. Summer and her music gave voice to that desperate, fearful, wonderful time when no one knew what was coming next, when everyone was determined to dance their fears away before the sun comes up and the “Last Dance” is over."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...