While Donna Summer may be “Hot Stuff” when it comes to iconic songwriting and singing, SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL is a lukewarm entry in the genre of biographical jukebox musicals. The musical features many of Donna Summer’s notable hits—and this national touring cast has the talent to take them all on—but the storyline gave me whiplash. With a book by Colman Domingo and Robert Cary and direction from Des McAnuff, SUMMER careens between the major events of Donna Summer’s life at an often breakneck pace.
SUMMER tries to give a sense from the outset both of the title character’s immense fame and also of her humble beginnings in Boston, Massachusetts. We first encounter Donna towards the end of her career, as she welcomes the audience to the show of a lifetime—meant to be a clever play on words referring both to the entertainment value of the production itself and to the fact that the show recounts her life. The book cues this up to gain audience buy-in, and Gareth Owen’s sound design oddly features pre-recorded audience responses. The result is clunky and inauthentic. Instead of letting audiences decide how they might feel about SUMMER, the musical tries to prime them for these moments in a forced way.
The musical similarly runs into issues portraying some of the darker moments in Donna’s life. An abusive relationship and a moment of violent assault on Donna with a former romantic partner is accompanied by the number “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” Clearly, the book writers meant to portray the event while not detracting too much from the fun. The effect is one that looks entirely too cavalier in its treatment of assault. Late in the show references to both Donna’s mistreatment by music executives and the sexual abuse at the hands of her pastor as a child feel shoehorned in. SUMMER tries to hit on some hot button issues as they emerged from Donna’s life, but tosses them in so briefly that they just feel misplaced.
I’d anticipate, of course, that audiences would primarily attend this jukebox musical to marvel at Donna Summer’s song catalog. And, in this aspect, they would not be disappointed. The title role is divided into three parts: Diva Donna (Dan’yelle Williamson), Disco Donna (Alex Hairston), and Duckling Donna (Olivia Elease Hardy). The show hasn’t necessarily figured out the best way to relate the Donnas to one another, though they often appear together onstage. But these three performers are formidable. And in addition to their singing prowess, all of them carry out Sergio Trujillo’s choreography with ease (particularly in the case of Hairston, who’s a spectacular dancer). Hardy conveys young Donna’s eager hopefulness and aspirations with more integrity than the book itself demands. Williamson seizes the spotlight as the mature Donna, indicating that she’s at ease in front of an audience and can easily tear into a ballad or upbeat number like it’s no problem. Williamson’s take on the iconic “She Works Hard for the Money” is delightful.
But it might just be Hairston as Disco Donna who steals the show. She’s nothing short of fabulous. Hairston’s vocals have a sweetness to them, which is deliciously contrasted by her immense vocal power. Her take on Donna makes it clear that we are in the presence of a star. Hairston finds the balance between Donna’s earnestness in her early days of stardom and convincingly grows into a woman who isn’t afraid to demand what she wants from her career or the music she’s making. And she can easily tear into a song. Hairston’s rendition of “Hot Stuff” simply scorches.
While I enjoyed watching these talented women take on Donna Summer’s song catalog, the musical itself doesn’t dive deep enough into who she was as both an artist and a human. SUMMER seems to want to split the difference between pure fun and a multifaceted portrayal of an artist who faced a great deal of turmoil in her life. The musical doesn’t manage to zero in on either of these approaches. So it’s best to approach SUMMER as an opportunity to hear some splendid performers sing Donna’s famous songs, and not look for much beyond that.
Broadway In Chicago’s engagement of the national tour of SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL runs through February 23 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph. Tickets are $27-$110. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com or call 800.775.2000.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy