While Summer: The Donna Summer Musical has a bit of an odd timeline for its narrative, it reminds you that the queen of disco’s reign has yet to end.
|Venue Address||New York, NY|
|Writer(s)||Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, Des McAnuff|
|Genre(s)||Musical, Drama, Comedy|
|Good If You Like||Donna Summers
|Disco Donna||Ariana DeBose|
|Duckling Donna||Storm Lever|
In a bit of a disjointed narrative, we go over the highs and lows of Donna Summer’s career and personal life. Whether it is, in the duckling years, singing with her sisters, having a solo in church, or learning her pastor molested her for years. Then, of course, there is dropping out of high school, in Boston, to go out to perform Hair and moan and groan in Munich for her first hit, “Love to Love.” Thus beginning the rollercoaster which, as noted in the performance, put her in a Judy Garland type of drug addiction that eventually, despite the hits, put her in a position where suicide was a temptation. For while often Summer, if not her music, was the party, eventually you have to get tired or perhaps a hangover. And while you’ll be dancing with hit after hit, the show addresses the bad times as much as the good.
Whether it is domestic violence, having Mimi raised by her parents, the aforementioned molestation, her infamous “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” statement, going broke, and the suicide attempt, don’t think the party doesn’t have its downers. However, believe me when I say the uppers are there too. All the hits from “Bad Girls” to the show ending “Last Dance” will make you wish you had more room to groove and, of course, with this being a musical, jokes are laced throughout. Also a hat tip to the #TimesUp or #MeToo movement. For it seems, to truly show how high on life Donna Summer was, they made sure to remind you that she got that high because she traversed the ways of what can bring people down and learned from it.
It’ll Make You Want A Aisle Seat & Wish It Was Proper Etiquette To Move
Sitting in a theater as the music is sung will make you wish theaters didn’t have seats that made you feel like you were in a straight jacket. The show starts off high energy as LaChanze begins things with “The Queen is Back” and moves to “I Feel Love,” when DeBose comes in and it nearly never ends. It makes it excruciating that theater etiquette doesn’t really allow you to get up and dance, from your seat or in the aisles because the groove hits you so strongly. Especially since, the few times they mix the song from what perhaps casual fans know [note]Speaking for myself.[/note], it enhances the music more than takes away from it.
Nearly All Women on Stage
Outside of Donna’s exes and father, it seems men are played by women who cross-dress and it leads to some comical moments. Mostly in crafting a #TimesUp joke, but in general this was a highlight since I’m sure this will mean more opportunity for the dancers later on in their career. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stage this dominated by women.
The Set and Visual Effects
For those lucky enough to see Motown: The Musical when it was in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the same quickly coming and going sets, the unbelievable lighting display, and how those features take the song further are all here. They, in fact, are what enhance the Disco Donner tunes and really turn that theater to a club you sadly can’t make any real moves in – even if Diva Donna encourages it in the beginning.
Despite there being three Donnas featured, Disco Donna, played by DeBose, might be the only one whose performance stands out. Yes, LaChanze maybe the Tony winner and plays Diva Donna, but more often than not LaChanze is playing Donna’s mother or acting as a sort of narrator. It is like she, and Lever are just there to enhance DeBose’s performance and damn if DeBose goes beyond standing on their shoulders and doesn’t shoot to be her own star.
For whether she is doing split kicks, dealing with Summer’s darkest moments, or playing up a joke, seemingly like Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, she’ll become the type of actress where, Donna Summer or not, just her name will be enough to justify a ticket. For this truly is like a full acting reel showing her range and potential.
Don’t Get Me Wrong, The Other Two Donnas Are Good Too
What perhaps is to be noted is that while the other two Donnas are a bit downplayed, they still have their moments. Duckling Donna may not be any sort of highlight, storywise, but when Lever is singing a song you can feel the passion and when she is part of a dance hit? While she isn’t doing splits and going all out like DeBose, when she is stomping and getting into it, she makes up for her disjointed part of Donna’s story. In fact, her energy pushes the idea that, in some years, when DeBose eventually moves on, she’d be the right one to become Disco Donna.
On The Fence
The Narrative is Just A Bit Disjointed
This isn’t a chronological musical. Something which leads to Duckling Donna suffering the most. For we start with it being a party with Diva Donna, featuring Disco, then are dropped into Duckling, back to Disco for most of the show, Duckling pops up to inform us Donna was molested as a child, and then it is back to Disco until Diva ends the show. So, while you can follow along, and in the theater they do give you the location (in the orchestra section anyway), with a LED board, of where things are, just adding some years, and maybe tightening up the Duckling storyline is all they need to do.
Otherwise, it just feels like they Duckling part is addressed out of obligation vs. really wanting to dive into that part of Summer’s life.
Overall: Positive (See Live)
With some of recordings greatest divas all coming to Broadway, including Cher and Tina Turner later in the year, or next, while some may see Donna Summer as an opening act, the precedent is delivered. Especially considering all three have a similar breakdown of different eras. But, considering how the actresses of Summer: The Donna Summer musical take the stage, they may be the first on Broadway but don’t consider them warming it up for the others. If anything, the ladies of the show are presenting a tough act to follow as they live up to the icon they portray.
Opening night is April 23rd, the show is currently in previews.