While watching the new Donna Summer musical I simultaneously thought, "This show is a lot of fun" and "Reviewers will find plenty to complain about but audiences will have a good time." No, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical isn’t as good as Jersey Boys, the long-running hit that was also directed by Des McAnuff. But it does a pretty good job of telling Summer’s dramatic life story and features dynamic production numbers that will remind Summer fans why they loved the Queen of Disco.
She was born Donna Gaines in Boston, and from an early age she yearned to be famous and appear on The Tonight Show. She realized her dreams, but the musical reveals that her life and career had serious ups and downs. Summer suffered abuse at the hands of several men. Casablanca Records took advantage of her financially, and eventually she sued the company (and won). Besides being a jukebox musical, this is also a #MeToo musical.
The book, by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and McAnuff, tells her story by going back and forth in time. That works well enough. For instance, we learn about the most shocking abuse she suffered midway through the show even though it happened when she was young. Some of the dialogue is rather pedestrian and at times repetitive. Summer calls this “the concert of a lifetime” more than once and says, “I’ve had a dozen lives.”
But McAnuff’s staging is fluid and fun to watch. There’s no elevated platform, as in Jersey Boys, but the director makes excellent use of elevators and small podiums that rise and fall during the big numbers like “MacArthur Park.” LaChanze, who plays Diva Donna, makes her entrance via an elevator with her back to us wearing a sequined gown. It’s a snazzy entrance, one befitting the Queen of Disco. The musical starts off with “The Queen Is Back” and “I Feel Love,” one of Summer’s chart toppers. LaChanze digs into it with her rich, soulful voice and puts her own stamp on it while paying tribute to Summer.
The fact that LaChanze shares the role with Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna) and young Storm Lever (Duckling Donna) allows each of them to belt the songs they’re given. Summer’s hits may have been driven by synthesizers, but she didn’t need autotune. It didn’t exist then anyway. She had a powerful voice, and her songs are demanding to sing. The fact that the three actresses are belting them, as well as dancing, eight times a week is impressive.
None of them sounds that much like Summer. DeBose has a solid voice and is a terrific dancer. Lever has a strong voice and is convincingly naïve and optimistic. LaChanze, who originated the leading roles in the first Broadway productions of The Color Purple and Once on This Island, has the most distinctive and stirring voice. She’s also good at showing the toll that performing, promoting, touring and recording for many years took. Her powerhouse singing nearly stops the show a few times. Quite simply, LaChanze is divine as the hard-working disco diva.
In some numbers, like “She Works Hard for the Money,” some of the women in the cast wear suits and play recording executive. In general it works, underscoring the theme of female empowerment. That number features some of Sergio Trujillo’s liveliest choreography.
“There’s always a cost,” Summer says. The costs for her included depression, loneliness and popping pills. Fortunately, she cleaned up her act, found love and stepped away from the business to be a mother. Her sisters helped her find God. Unfortunately, her newfound religion led her to make the homophobic remark, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
In Summer this episode is dealt with briefly near the end. It seems to be tagged on because the creative team realized they had to mention the controversy but wanted to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. It isn’t successful. On the other hand, devoting more time to Summer’s unfortunate comment would just be more of a downer.
Gay men were obviously some of her biggest fans, and her disco hits brought millions of fans ecstatic moments on dance floors and in other, more private places. (Remember “Love to Love You Baby” and its 22 orgasms?) Summer isn’t a perfect musical, but it does tell the singer’s rollercoaster ride of a life story and packs in most of her infectious hits. The whole cast sings and dances their hearts out, but LaChanze’s fabulous performance is reason enough to see the show.