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 opening 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.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others, Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, Directed by Des McAnuff, Choreography by Sergio Trujillo
WITH: LaChanze (Diva Donna/Mary Gaines); Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna); Storm Lever (Duckling Donna/Mimi); Aaron Krohn (Neil Bogart/Sommelier/Gunther); Ken Robinson (Andrew Gaines); Jared Zirilli (Bruce Sudano); Angelica Bellard (Ensemble); Mackenzie Bell (Detective/David Geffen/Ensemble); Kaleigh Cronin (Giorgio Moroder/Ensemble); Anissa Felix (Adult Mary Ellen/Ensemble); Drew Wildman Foster (Brian/Helmuth Sommer/Ensemble/Fight Captain); Kendal Hartse (Pete Bellote/Don Engel/ Ensemble); Afra Hines (Michael/Maid/Ensemble); Jenny Laroche (Norman Brokaw/Ensemble /Dance Captain); Aurelia Michael (Swing/Asst. Dance Captain); Wonu Ogunfowora (Young Mary Ellen/Brooklyn/ Ensemble); Jody Reynard (Swing); Rebecca Riker (Bob/Ensemble); Christina Acosta Robinson (Adult Dara/Ensemble); Jessica Rush (Joyce Bogart/Enssemble); Kim Steele (Swing); Harris M. Turner (Pastor/ Ensemble)
BAND: Taylor Peckham (Conductor/Keyboard); Debra Barsha (Associate Conductor/Keyboard); Victoria Theodore (Keyboard); Michelle Marie Nestor (Guitar); Sherisse Rogers (Bass); Courtnee Roze (Percussion); Rosa Avila (Drums). Randy Cohen (Synthesizer Programmer); John Miller (Music Coordinator)
Scenic Design by Robert Brill; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design by Howell Brinkley; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Projection Design by Sean Nieuwenhuis; Wig and Hair Design by Charles G. LaPointe; Fight Direction by Steve Rankin; Story Consultant, Bruce Sudano; Orchestrations by Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose; Music Director, Victoria Theodore; Music Supervision and Arrangements by Ron Melrose; Technical Supervision, Hudson Theatrical Associates; Production Supervisor, Richard Hester; Company Manager, Miguel A. Ortiz; Production Stage Manager, Andrew Neal; Executive Producer, Dana Sherman; General Management, Dodger Management Group; Creative Producer, Lauren Mitchell.
Produced by Tommy Mottola and The Dodgers at The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th St., NYC. Tickets are available through www.Ticketmaster.com online or by phone at 877-250-2929 or in person at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre box office. Box office hours are Monday through Saturday from 10:00am to 8:00pm. Group sales (of 12 or more) are available by calling 877-536-3437 or by email at [email protected]