Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, NYC, April 26, 2018

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

(L-R) LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, Storm Lever
Photo: Joan Marcus

“Lookin’ for some hot stuff baby this evenin'”? The hot stuff comes toward the end of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, but, on the way, there’s some impressive vocal talent delivering 23 catchy dance faves. The latest jukebox musical traces an uneasy path to Summer’s pedestal as the Queen of Disco. “She Works Hard for the Money,” the song says, and she battled abuse on many fronts including drugs, suicide, and illness. Donna Summer died of lung cancer in 2012, but, during her career, her voice filled the airways and hit charts with that singular electronic sound and infectious beat. 

Currently at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Summer disappoints with a clumsy skim-through book written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff (who also directed the show). Hit songs are pasted into a haphazard flash-back and zoom-ahead narrative, forming little more than a bio-musical of young LaDonna Adrian Gaines singing in a church and later reaching disco stardom.
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It became part of the sound in discothèques like Studio 54 and under all the disco balls in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The clubs, however, were not where Summer wanted to end her career, and she did have the vocal talent to take it in other directions. But disco was a ceiling she could not crack through and she later realized, “There are worse things they could call you” than Queen of Disco.
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Performing her story are three fine singers—Storm Lever as Duckling Donna, Ariana DeBose playing Disco Donna, and LaChanze as Diva Donna—all portraying Summer at different ages. Lever, in her Broadway debut, is young LaDonna Adrian Gaines singing in church until her mid-teens when her first producer, Giorgio Moroder, gives her the new name, “Donna Summer.”

Diva Donna is played by the terrific LaChanze (The Color Purple). With her dazzling smile and vocal versatility, she opens the show with affable banter (“Now, if you want to sing along, you just go right ahead and sing”) and acts as a guide throughout. 

As Disco Donna, Ariana DeBose (A Bronx Tale) is convincing as Summer faces obstacles with her personal values and natural sensuality challenging her talent as a vibrant dancing and singing disco machine. Unfortunately, the story has glamour and religion, but no emotion. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet) is vigorous, but not exceptional. 

With a set by Robert Brill, the sparkle of the show comes from ubiquitous silver sequins contrasted by LaChanze’s electric blue gown. For some reason, McAnuff (Jersey Boys) cast women in many of the male roles, including ensemble dancers and Summer’s producer, Moroder (Kaleigh Cronin), dressed in drag by Paul Tazewell. While Diva Donna once recalled that disco was a “world of mystery and androgyny,” the campy drag is questionable, as is her lame excuse for her controversial comment that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

The high point is the ebullient finale of “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance,” with Howell Binkley’s pulsating strobe lights, as three disco balls drop from the ceiling, with flashing projections and silver paper discs falling over the audience like silver snow. 

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.