The Column Online

SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical

SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical

(National Tour)
Music and Lyrics by various composers/Lyricists
Book By Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, Des McAnuff

AT&T Performing Arts Center

Lauren L. Sobon- DIRECTOR
Natalie Caruncho- CHOREOGRAPHER
Erika R. Gamez- Music Director/Keyboard I
Robert Andrew Kovach- TOUR SCENIC DESIGN
Brandon T. Miller- WIG AND HAIR DESIGN

Charis Michelle Gullage as DISCO DONNA
Amahri Edwards-Jones as DUCKLING DONNA/MIMI
Porter Lee Anderson III as ANDREW GAINES
Christopher Lewis as NEIL BOGART/GUNTHER
John Guaragna as BRUCE SUDANO
Kayleigh Hegarty (SWING)
Mind Pornsakulpaisal as MAID/MICHAEL/ENSEMBLE
Nissi Shalome (SWING)
Ariel Etana Triunfo as ADULT DARA/ENSEMBLE

Reviewed Performance: 4/26/2022

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

In 2019 when I received the press release that SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical was going to launch the first National tour in September of that same year, I immediately marked my calendar to make double sure that my schedule was clear to review that musical. Why you ask? Three simple reasons:

The major reason is that I was (and still am) a devoted fan of Donna Summer. I was an underage high school teen with a fake ID, but along with my other high school friend, we would go to the discos to dance the night away, I know, shame on us! Under that hypnotic kaleidoscope of dizzying-colored lights and effects, the endless haze of fog being pumped onto the massive dance floor, it was there I first heard the heart-pounding Giorgio Moroder synthesizers, the crescendo of strings floating in and out within those thunderous drumbeats and loud horns. All these elements served as an instrumental floor made of silk for that one-of-a-kind, mega-powerful voice to lay those incredible vocal pipes on, so that he and co-writer/producer Pete Bellotte could create those historic disco classics, one after another. Donna Summer had a vocal range that surpassed every female singer during the Disco era, she kept racking up number one hits, Certified Platinum albums, Grammy, and American Music Award hardware. She even won an Oscar for Best Song for “Last Dance.” She was crowned the Queen of Disco, and no female artist of her generation or any female vocalist to this day has come close to even touching her sparkling crown. I purchased every album and 12-inch dance mix she ever recorded. I saw her only once in concert live and in person. It was a surreal experience that I still treasure to this day. The second reason: When I read there would be a workshop on a musical about Summer’s life in the works, I kept my eyes glued for any updates or outcomes from that workshop (Which turned out to be at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2017). The La Jolla production was met with mixed reviews, the producers still put faith in the show and took it to Broadway, which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 2018.

The third and final reason: I reviewed the Broadway production in June 2018, and it came with a special unexpected surprise. As a critic, as an actor, and as an addicted aficionado of musical theater, I was immensely excited to finally see this musical. The unexpected surprise came after the show. I went backstage to visit a friend who was in the cast, and on my way out, we bumped into the actress who portrayed Disco Donna, Ariana DeBose. She had received a Tony nomination for SUMMER, we had a wonderful, personal conversation about the show and her preparation for her creation of Disco Donna. To think in a short five years later she would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for WEST SIDE STORY.

So, did this national tour match, resemble, or recreate some or any of the original Broadway production? What changes, additions, etc. were done to the musical since then? Let’s take off our platform shoes, shake out the confetti in our hair, and let’s chat about what we saw Tuesday evening.

The design elements for the national tour have been clearly altered and modified than what I saw at the Lunt-Fontanne. This could explain why some of the original designers were listed in the credits along with the tour designers. That’s something you don’t see too often.

Russell A. Thompson’s lighting design, unfortunately, lacks the eye-popping, disco-glorified, multi-colored, blinding array of lighting spectacle that Howard Binkley did for the original. Binkley uses a bounty of LEDs, gobos, moving lighting, etc. For a couple of disco scenes (such as for the number “Hot Stuff”), he flew in from the fly rails long, slick tubes of lighting (along with three huge mirror balls) that flooded the theater. This of course paid homage to Studio 54, where many a Donna Summer 12-inch remix played. Thompson’s lighting for the tour is missing a majority of these dazzling lighting elements and moments. He does add color, and movement, and creates a good aura of a disco. But it is sadly low wattage in comparison to the mega-lighting disco fantasy in the original, especially for the finale! For Broadway original designer Binkley mesmerized the audience into a disco possession of so much color, movement, and razzle-dazzle that doused all over the theater. For the tour, Thompson does a good job of creating color, movement, etc. for the finale, but it just doesn’t knock you off your platform shoes.

On Broadway Robert Brill’s original scenic design was a slick, pearl white dance floor, pearl white framing the proscenium, and a never-ending array of bits-n-pieces of furniture or set pieces to give the audience the vision of where we are in that particular scene or musical number. Aiding him in a major way was a never-ending bounty of original projections by designer Sean Nieuwenhuis. He created these massive floor-to-ceiling video walls, plus panels for both sides of the stage. All evening long we would see videos, moving visuals, or pictures to provide a Grande epic cascade of visual thrills all evening long for the audience. For the tour, Robert Andrew Kovach’s scenic design and Chris McCleary’s projection design used a more diluted version of these original designs, with tweaks and at times major adjustments. Kovach has added six mini-wall units in which the cast moves all evening long to create various visual shapes or layouts to set the scene. They sort of remind you of those skeletal towers created in the original production of Dreamgirls. Nothing is projected on these mini walls per se, but they are wonderfully lit by Thompson, where they change colors during a musical number or between scene changes. Gone though are the massive video screens, in its place is a much smaller version, nonetheless, it does still do the job, only on a smaller scale. But during the big, splashy disco numbers those massive walls on Broadway pumped up the volume and excitement of the music, choreography, and performances with its insane wall of color, video movement, and light. For the tour it sort of works in some numbers, and at other moments, it just doesn’t reach that level. It was nice though to see that McCleary kept the touching moment of showing Donna Summer’s actual original paintings on the video screen in the scene with her daughters for the number, “Unconditional Love.” One final comment, the one design element I so wished the tour had kept was the humongous disco mirror ball that came out for the finale! That on Broadway was jaw-dropping amazing! It was massive! And on the last note of “Last Dance” of the finale, a huge explosion of confetti sprayed into the audience (I have some in my Playbill). Sure, it was a bit of camp, but it’s disco! You danced your troubles away under that mirror ball and all that confetti. The Lunt-Fontanne audience went insane with applause. I was so hoping it was going to happen Tuesday evening at the Winspear, but it did not. A much, much smaller mirror ball appeared upstage, and a light sprinkling of silver confetti trickled upstage.

According to the Playbill, original costume designer Paul Tazewell is listed along with costume coordination provided by John C. White. This could explain why some costumes looked remarkably familiar from what I remember that I saw on Broadway, while others looked completely different. For example, in the original, the finale costumes were done in silver sequins and rhinestones. For the national tour, the ensemble is done in iridescent sequins on white fabrics. Regardless, both sets of costumes looked smashing. However, Brandon T. Miller’s wig and hair design was a tad disheveled. In the opening number one of the ensemble girls had a blonde wig that seem to have no lace front and was plopped on her head so oddly, that it looked like she replaced a different girl seconds before curtain and the dresser just threw the nearest wig on her head. In this same number when Brittny Smith (Diva Donna) made her first big entrance, her wig looked so thirsty and not styled at all. She kept trying to get this one long curl that kept drooping over her eyes out of her face. Gunther’s wig also looked ill-fitted and made him look like William Shatner, only it was styled to look shellacked in a strange way like he had fallen asleep with a baseball cap on, woke up, and ran on stage. A couple of the ensemble girls also had a battle with their wigs during the number “She Works Hard for the Money” as a few of them kept pushing hair out of their faces. The struggle was real. Not a good night for wigs.

When I read that SUMMER had a National tour planned, I immediately got excited because this meant the creators can return to the material to really dissect the entire show to fix, change, delete, and reimagined what worked and didn’t work when it ran on Broadway (It closed after 289 performances). The first National tour went on the road in 2020 when the pandemic hit, shutting them down along with every other tour in the nation. But this would again, give them time to review what was working or not working on the road. After a run at La Jolla, then Broadway, then a first national tour- the creative team had the luxury that many new musicals would kill for to fix and repair what was wrong with a show.

After I posted my review of the Broadway production for the public to read, I went back online to read what the New York critics thought of the show. I was incredibly surprised to discover that I was in the same mind of opinion as they were when it came to the book and direction of the show. Flash forward five years later to Tuesday evening, I sat in the Winspear Opera house before curtain hoping that finally, maybe just maybe the creators finally exhumed the book and direction, to once and for all get the REAL facts in place, expose and explore the truth in some of Summer’s darker, troubled periods in her life, and get completely rid of some of the most perplexing, irritating, and ridiculous concepts and scenes from its original version and direction that clogged the musical’s veins from breathing life into a true, honest, raw and REAL musical befitting the Queen of Disco.

The book is a disorienting salmagundi of scenes, moments, flashbacks going back and forth, in circles, and in the middle. Sometimes you get a musical number of one of her big legendary hits, but the majority of the night it’s a verse or snippets of a Summer classic hit you get, and worse-the music that they choose honestly doesn’t fit in the scene, nor in the time frame. This is why the jukebox musical can be the kiss of death when it comes to taking an artist’s catalog of music and shoving it into a storyline, no matter if the lyrics or the meaning behind the origins of that hit song really don’t fit into this “new” plot. Remember, you have faithful, die-hard fans coming to see this show, so of course, they will know the history behind the music. For SUMMER, you have three book writers! Three! And they still could not logically and emotionally fit her pastiche of songs into a strong, character-driven subtext book. To make matters worse, to take some of Summer’s monster global hits and squeeze them into a plotline that makes no sense only added more frustration for the audience. For example, taking the global hit “No More Tears” (A duet with Barbra Streisand) and use it for a scene dealing with a German ex-boyfriend who physically abuses her? HUH? What could have been a truly dramatic book scene (without music) reflecting Summer’s life, the scene has this iconic disco hit sung by the three Donnas (what on earth would Duckling Donna sing this?), while this embarrassing, comical stage fight occurs between Summer and the German when three cops show up pointing guns at him then also joining in on this bizarre, fake pantomiming of attacking Gunther. You actually hear the audience laughing. It’s a train wreck.

The book has three women portraying three eras of Summer: Diva Donna, Disco Donna, and Duckling Donna. They all wear shades of blue costumes so that you knew who they were when the ensemble appeared. However, if you didn’t pay close attention, Diva Donna becomes Summer’s mother, and Duckling Donna becomes Mimi, Disco Donna’s daughter. Got that? Yeah, I didn’t either until halfway through the show. This same concept (three versions of the same woman) was used for another musical about a famous gay icon female artist, THE CHER SHOW.

When you do a musical about a legend, such as Summer, you have to show it all, the good and the bad. It was what we loved about her. Instead, the book quickly glosses over those darker, less “superstar” moments with a few lines and jumps into the next disco classic to distract the audience to not focus on her mistakes, flaws, or misjudgments in her life. But THAT is why we loved her. It showed under the sequins and spotlight she was mortal, just like us. From her molestation nightmare by her pastor, her drug use, and the comment she made that destroyed her career for several long years. Here is where I had to re-read my original review as well as go back and research this comment she made.

Why? Well at Tuesday’s performance Diva Donna at the piano tells the audience that she couldn’t exactly remember how it happened, but that it was on a tour bus while in Atlanta circa 1983 (in the show she breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience frequently). They were having a singing contest between the men and women singers, but each time the girls sang, the boys jumped in and got louder. Summer got tired of it and said off-handling, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” However, most accounts in published reports have stated that she made the comment while on stage in a concert in Atlanta in 1983. This occurred right in the middle of the AIDS crisis at its worst, and let us be truly clear here, Summer’s career was made by her loyal and massive gay fan base. It was in gay discos that played “Love to Love You Baby” that started her career. This was way before social media. But once this comment was in the media, it burst into a firestorm. She lost millions of gay fans. Discos refused to play her records and held “burn her albums” parties. Adding fuel to the fire, she did not respond immediately to this comment. It was weeks before she finally did, but it was too late. The damage was done. Her career took a massive blow and nosedived to failure. Her albums and singles no longer charted like before. None of this is fully explored or used for dramatic weight in the book for SUMMER. Instead, the book has only her side, which in the tour has a different line than what I remember in the original. Now true, she does sing a beautiful ballad, “Friends Unknown.” But this was a MAJOR factor in Summer’s career and life. Many felt it was for this was the very reason why she never got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (she did finally, but it was after she had passed away).

What adds much more bewilderment to all this is that Bruce Sudano is credited as a story consultant for the production. He is Donna Summer’s surviving husband. Did he battle with Des McAnuff to drop those darker parts of his wife’s life or “alter” the truth so as not to place her in a negative light? But that’s what makes a musical about an artist’s life work, you show ALL of their life, the good and bad.

This whole framework would have provided such a dramatic arc for both music and character development. Instead, it is used as a blip in the lifeless book. It could have been used to show her transformation that resulted from this downfall. Because in the end she was forgiven by her fans.

It was never established in the original version if it were Director Des McAnuff or choreographer Sergio Trujillo who had the idea and concept of having an ensemble comprised of mostly females, thereby these women would be playing major characters throughout the evening, in bad male drag. They never “really” hid the fact they were men. When this musical opened in La Jolla in 2017, we as a nation were in the first year of the Me-Too movement. On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter that now infamous tweet due to the breaking news of sexual abuse allegation charges that had recently been brought up on Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein and the new allegations against Financier Jeffrey Epstein. By the time the musical premiered on Broadway, the movement, and the heinous and vile crimes these men committed had now been fully exposed. The Me-Too movement was at the forefront of the nation’s conversation. This is all stated for background information to maybe explain why the possible reason for this gender-bending idea of the “more women in the ensemble/ play big roles” concept. This was before the current climate situation the theater world is currently under in regard to casting. But here is what is baffling to me. Donna Summer was not some, huge, out on the streets marching feminist. Now she did stand up and fight for what was right for her career (her battle with her record label Casablanca). But she wasn’t a Gloria Steinem prototype by any means. It might have looked cool on paper the hypothesis of an almost all-female ensemble, but let’s face the truth here, Summer was a gay icon. She loved the men surrounding her. But to have women portraying roles like Pete Bellote or as part of the men’s ensemble in such male-driven songs like “White Boys” or in a dramatic book scene (the police interrogation scene for example), this “casting concept” just doesn’t work. It completely takes you out of the scene, you realize it’s a female and you start thinking, “That’s a girl. Why? What am I missing here? Am I supposed to see some subtext in Summer’s life to this, if so, what is it?” You do this over and over. These glaring, mystifying issues with the book and bizarre casting concept grasp and choke the musical by its throat and do its very damn best to drag it to the gravesite where other failed jukebox musicals are buried.

This tour has a production team of women power galore! Lauren L. Sobon directs this national tour, Natalie Caruncho choreographs the show from original choreography created by Sergio Trujillo, and the INCREDIBLE disco delicious orchestra is musically directed by the extraordinary Erika R. Gamez. It should also be noted and applauded that the Production Stage Manager is helmed by a woman as well, Bethany Sortman. That is RARE and a feat in ANY national tour to have an all-female team in such high positions within the production staff, so all these women deserve a standing ovation for achieving this incredible moment. Bravo ladies!

Ms. Gamez’s choreography is the star of this tour by far! She recreates many of Trujillo’s original stunning disco-flavored dance creations. She clearly added some of her own pieces of smashing choreography as well, which slid perfectly into Trujillo’s choreography like a gold sequined platform shoe. Her work is outstanding and a major highlight of the evening.

When I saw that a female was directing this tour I thought “YES! She will see those massive potholes and the varnishing over the book and some characters and that glaring mistakes in casting!” She as a woman could clearly feel and see-thru Summer’s eyes her life and inner dialogue. Ms. Sobon could finally clean the slate and rebuild the book, staging, and concept that was ill-conceived by McAnuff. Much to my dismay, she simply left it as is. She also generated new issues that left me- as a fan of this dynamic woman’s voice and career- well, angry if I’m being honest.

Brittny Smith portrays “Diva Donna/Mary Gaines,” the one who leads and weaves in and out throughout the musical the audience on the journey into Summer’s life. Smith possesses has a great pair of vocal pipes. Having said that it did cause one a moment of concern when in her second number, “I Feel Love,” she was unable to sustain those long notes composed in this early classic Summer dance hit. She even makes a comment about her ability to sustain those notes, but she struggled and didn’t succeed in several areas of the song. She fared much, much better as the evening wore on. Her rendition of “MacArthur Park” was a smash in the vocal department! I only wished that Ms. Smith peeled deeper into her acting craft to morph more into Summer in voice, body, and mannerisms. LaChanze did so on Broadway to remarkable results. She nailed down Summer’s vibrato and ability to sustain a note for endless measures. She also morphed her body and facial expressions to become more like Summer. It was surreal to view this sitting there in the Lunt-Fontanne. Ms. Smith doesn’t bring out Summer per se. Instead, she seemed to focus on making the audience laugh and pushing the zingers written in the book a bit too much at times. You lose Summer completely and instead get a comedic routine between songs. Now Summer was funny on stage in concerts, but this is about her life, so are you at her concert? Or her story about her life? The book gives us no answer. That damn book strikes again. On Broadway, LaChanze took it as a journey of her life and colored her journey with emotional crayons of warm colors of heartbreaking emotion. Ms. Smith, while wonderfully entertaining, treated it more like a concert and avoided the dramatic intensity altogether. Which was a major disappointment. But suffice to say, Ms. Smith does provide a highly entertaining and crowd-pleasing performance.

Disco Donna is portrayed by Charis Michelle Gullage, this Donna is during her sizzling years of superstardom as the Queen of Disco. Gullage has a grand soprano voice that works fantastic magic with some of Summer’s greatest, legendary hits. Gullage radiates and provides the best stage presence of the three Donnas in such musical numbers as “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “No More Tears,” “Heaven Knows,” and especially in “Dim All the Lights.” She too has the issue of not embodying or peeling the layers of Summer’s characteristics and darker, more intense subtext. But she does give her Donna a firmer dramatic grounding, which gives her performance a better understanding than the other two Donnas. Ms. Gullage sparkles and dazzles endlessly under those stage lights like the sequins on her gowns.

The role of Duckling Donna/Mimi is the weakest one written in the book, but Amahri Edwards-Jones gives it her all in her first-rate performance. Her fierce, powerful vocals deliver stunning performances with her musical numbers “On My Honor” and “Pandora’s Box.”

Within the company there are several that deserve a rousing wave of kudos:

The female ensemble along with the three leading ladies performed the gospel-flavored song “I Believe in Jesus.” This was the best all full vocal ensemble number of the evening. A gorgeous number bursting with lush vocals bursting with sublime harmonies. Simply exquisite.

Christopher Lewis does a great job as the head of Casablanca Records; Neil Bogart then switches it up as the abusive German Gunther.

As Joyce Bogart, the wife of Casablanca records boss Neil, Aubrey Young delivered a fabulous performance, but then it came to the song, “Dim All The Lights.” This massively synthesized disco classic hit has had its tempos drastically altered to be transposed into a haunting ballad (Summer sings this slower version on her VH1 Presents Live & More Encore! Available on Spotify). It is here where Ms. Young releases this Lioness roar of powerful fierceness vocals that knocked me out! It was raw, emotional, and visceral. I was completely taken by surprise by this actress’s emotional vocal approach to the song. It was the first time all evening that I was genuinely moved. Ms. Young gave a stunning performance in those 2 minutes and 2 seconds.

Another stand out was John Guaragna as Bruce Sudano, a sessions guitarist who would become the big love in Summer’s life and her husband. Guaragna had impeccable chemistry with Smith and Gullage that never lost its connection. His stage presence shined brightly each time he stepped on stage. His duet with Gullage, “Heaven Knows” displayed his rich baritone voice. Just like Broadway, it is such a huge disappointment that this leading role was not given more music, more scene work, and much deeper character development as he served such a major factor in Summer’s life. Nonetheless, Guaragna delivered a cool, marvelous performance.

A rousing round of applause must be bestowed upon the entire ensemble, both the male and female members within the company. They are the unsung heroes of this musical. They all go through a trunk full of costume changes, from their shoes to their wigs! They portray an army of various characters that populate Donna Summer’s life and journey. From family and friends sitting in her Boston MA living room, to dancers in a crowded discotheque, to becoming Summer’s backup band, and so on. They execute superbly with slick precision and unity the highly energetic choreography. They also provide solid vocals in many of the musical numbers, such as “Bad Girls”, “MacArthur Park”, “Dim All The Lights”, “Last Dance”, among others. These are triple-threat talents within this sizzling ensemble. Several displayed their sparkling triple talents like the shimmering gems on their finale costumes. These talented thespians that stood out include Mia Davidson as Adult Mary Ellen, Candace Haynes as Young Mary Ellen/Brooklyn, Ciara Jones as Young Dara/Amanda, Kyle Southern as Giorgio Moroder/David Geffen, and Ariel Etana Triunfo as Adult Dara.

A special gold bauble goes to Francisco Risso who not serves as the dance captain for the tour but also portrays Helmuth/Norman Brokaw/Bob in the show. Risso clearly stands out as the most polished dancer in the company with his precise, finely detailed attention to the choreography and luminous stage presence that forces your attention back to him and his talents each time he takes the stage in those company numbers.

In the end, the MAJOR reason to see SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical is this: To just sit back and blissfully enjoy this Disco icon’s legendary catalog of music brought back to spectacular life by a polished, OUT OF THIS WORLD orchestra, a diligent, magical, stunning company of singers, actors, and dancers. Savor and relish in the luscious, sexy, and sparkling world of disco choreography recreated on stage. If you are a fan of Donna Summer, you will love hearing her music come to life once more!

In the musical Diva Donna says to the audience, “I just want people to hear and listen to my music on the radio. I want them to say my music played a major part of their lives.”

It did Ms. Summer. On so many levels, it did in my life on so many levels. And for that, I cannot thank you enough. Thank you so, so, much.

SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical
Playing through May 1, 2022
Winspear Opera House
2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201


MAIN PAGE for ATT Performing Arts Center: