The ‘Queen of Disco’

‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’

The Donna Summer musical in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago)
The Donna Summer Musical in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago)

3 stars

They sound like a good idea on paper, and there have been dozens bouncing around Broadway and on National Tours over the years, but the jukebox musical isn’t much more than a concert with some narrative.

There are two formats in this style of musical theatre. There’s the show that creates an original story and characters, but instead of using new music to further the plot, the songs of one or more artists are featured instead.

This idea began in the 1980s, with shows like “Return to the Forbidden Planet.” Then “Mamma Mia!” in the 1990’s, became a theatrical pop cult classic despite the strained attempt to incorporate ABBA’s music into a bizarre, convoluted plot.

The original story form of jukebox musical flourished in the 21st century with musicals such as “All Shook Up,” “Rock of Ages,” “Escape to Margaritaville” and the excellent, new “Jagged Little Pill.”

Then we have the biographical jukebox musicals that claim to be  based upon the life/lives of a famous singer or musical group. The best examples include “Jersey Boys,” “On Your Feet,” “Beautiful: The Carol King Musical” and “Ain’t Too Proud.”

But for every excellent tuneful life story there are many other less successful, even painful, musical memoirs. “We Will Rock You,” “Hot Feet,” “The Cher Show” and “Tina: The Musical” come to mind.

The Donna Summer Musical in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago)
The Donna Summer Musical in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago)

In Chicago for the next two weeks, we have the National Tour of the Broadway biographical jukebox musical that’s purported to be the life of the Queen of the Disco, Donna Summer.

It’s not really. It’s actually a slickly produced, topnotch, 100-minute intermission-less concert featuring 23 of the diva’s greatest hits. They’re laced together by a sketchy depiction of the superstar’s life.

The lackluster book for the show was co-written by Colman Domingo and Tony winner Des McAnuff, with music by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder and Paul Jabara.

Directed by McAnuff and choreographed by Tony Award-winner, Sergio Trujillo, the show sparkles with concert lighting by Howell Binkley, and a sparse scenic design by Robert Brill that is greatly enhanced by Sean Nieuwenhuis’ colorful projections. The glittering costumes are by Tony Award-winner Paul Tazewell, and they are spectacular.

The script divides the role of Donna Summer between three excellent actress/singers, opening with Diva Donna, the elder version of the singer. She’s portrayed by Dan’yelle Williamson, a gifted vocalist and actress with scores of Broadway, international and touring credentials.

Williamson opens the “concert of a lifetime,” as her character appropriately labels the show, with “The Queen is Back,” referencing Donna Summer’s often used moniker, The Queen of Disco. She guides theatergoers on a journey recalling the high points of her short life. Williamson is a superb singer who’ll knock your socks off as well as an accomplished actress and dancer.

Alex Hairston is stunning as Disco Donna, the persona of Donna Summer that most of the audience will recognize. She proves to be as equally terrific and all-around performer as Williamson.

This petite young artist belts out each of her numbers and boogies gracefully all over the stage. Hairston is such a likable actress in this role that she dominates this productio, with ease.

We see her as Donna dropping out of high school to sneak off to New York where she’s cast in the German production of “Hair” and watch with glee as she records her erotic disco hit, “Love to Love You, Baby,” while lying on the floor of a Munich studio.

The audience witnesses her meeting and marrying Helmuth Sommer, who would provide Donna with her professional surname, Summer. She also becomes close with the two men who would produce over half of her popular albums.

Olivia Elease Hardy portrays the younger, preteen version of the disco queen. Christened LaDonna Adrian Gaines, this talented little girl soon became the star of her Boston church choir even though she was being continually abused by the minister. This, like many of the significant events from Donna Summer’s life, is only touched upon, giving the audience a mere outline of the singer’s life.

Summer would be destined for much more, but this musical glosses over most of it, in favor of simply hearing her hit songs. While some of Summer’s music appears in abridged versions, other songs, such as “She Works Hard for the Money,” become full-out production numbers.

We’re treated to strains of “I Feel Love,” “Heaven Knows,” “MacArthur Park,” “On the Radio,” “Bad Girls,” “Dim All the Lights,” “Hot Stuff” and many others.

The Donna Summer Musical in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago)
The Donna Summer Musical in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago)

The diva’s breakup with her abusive first husband is told through her famous duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough).” The show’s finale  is performed by the entire company to her mega disco hit, “Last Dance.”

This 2018 musical which played on Broadway for less than a year, is certainly fun. But as a musical it’s ultimately unfulfilling. The script is trite and doesn’t shed very much light on this important performer who was nicknamed The Queen of Disco.

The show reduces her to a mere concert artist, instead of a minor miracle of pop music. Summer was an important pioneer, using the pulsating electronic synthesizer to drive the tempo of her songs. She became an icon for the Studio 54 crowd and gay party boys around the world.

Aside from a trio of stellar performances with all three talented actresses playing Donna Summer at various ages of her life, an energetic, gifted supporting company of primarily female singer/dancers and an almost two dozen hit songs that defined  the Disco Era, this musical is enjoyable but not at all groundbreaking.

DETAILS: “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is a Broadway in Chicago show  that is at Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, through Feb. 23, 2020. Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and other information call (800) 775-2000 or visit BroadwayinChicago

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago



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