SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICALBook by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff
Music and lyrics Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte, Paul Jabara, and others
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York, NY
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo
Musical Direction by Victoria Theodore
Scenic Design by Robert Brill
Costume Design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design by Howell Binkley
Sound Design by Gareth Owen
Projection Design by Sean Nieuwenhuis
Wig Design by Charles G Lapointe
Orchestrations by Bill Brendle
Synthesizer Programming by Randy Cohen
Production Supervision by Richard Hestor
Production Stage Management by Andrew Neal
Stage Management by Lucy Kennedy
Assistant Stage Management by Samantha Preiss
Diva Donna/Mary Gaines-LaChanze
Disco Donna-Ariana DeBose
Duckling Donna/Mimi Sudano-Storm Lever
Giorgio Moroder-Kaleigh Cronin
Pete Bellotte/Don Engal-Kendal Hartse
Neil Bogart/Gunther/Sommelier-Aaron Krohn
Joyce Bogart-Jessica Rush
Brian/Helmuth Summer-Drew Wildman Foster
Andrew Gaines/Doctor-Ken Robinson
Young Mary/Brooklyn-Wonu Ogunfowora
Young Dara/Amanda-Kimberly Dodson
Pastor-Harris M. Turner
Michael/Maid/ "Turn to Stone" Soloist-Afra Hines
Detective/David Geffen- Mackenzie Bell
Bruce Sudano-Jared Zirilli
Norman Brokaw-Jenny Larouce
Adult Mary Ellen- Anissa Feliz
Adult Dara- Christina Acosta Robinson
Ensemble: Angelica Beliard, Mackenzie Bell, Kaleigh Cronin, Kimberly Dodson, Anissa Felix, Drew Wildman Foster,
Kendal Hartse, Afra Hines, Jenny Laroche, Wonu Ogunfowora, Rebecca Riker, Christina Acosta Robinson,
Jessica Rush, Harris M. Turner.
Reviewed Performance: 6/14/2018
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Her music catalogue is staggering. She was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums that reached No. 1 on the Billboard's album chart. She recorded seventeen studio albums, three compilation albums, and two live albums, all that went gold and/or platinum. Sometimes triple platinum. She ended up releasing a total of eighty-nine singles. She received seventeen Grammy nominations (winning five) and twelve American Music Awards nominations (winning six).
In 2013, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a year after her death. When she died on May 17, 2012 of lung cancer (even though she was not a smoker), it was heartbreaking to hear. Tears filled my eyes watching the devastating news of her death. A voice that touched so many was gone.
In past interviews (and on the VH1 special, Live & More: Encore) she talked about composing and creating her own musical. She performed on this special one of the songs she co-wrote titled “My Life”. Unfortunately, her self-penned musical never left the ground.
In November 2017 the La Jolla Playhouse mounted the world premiere of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. The second I read that, I knew it was my mission to see this production. As a devoted fan and as a critic. The musical quickly made its Broadway debut in April 2018 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. This month it received two Tony Award nominations (Best Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actress in A Musical).
This new musical’s strengths far outweigh the flaws.
Regrettably, the major flaw is the book, which is a frequent problem that pops up when it comes to the jukebox musical genre. The book has three writers- Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff. Fear the Walking Dead fans know Domingo as Victor Strand and McAnuff was the co-writer and Director of another Jukebox musical, Jersey Boys whose book was expertly written. Summer’s book takes three actresses portraying various stages of Summer’s life to tell her story. But the story jumps all over the place, reduces some of Summer’s major influences to mere blips with barely to no solos. What makes the book frustrating is the glossing over of some of Summer’s most difficult aspects of her life. In particular the tidal wave of controversy regarding her anti-gay / AIDS comments she supposedly made at an Atlanta concert in 1983. Summer had a worldwide gay fan base, beginning to her early disco days. I vividly remember when this nightmare happened, and it shattered my heart as fan. She didn’t immediately respond back to these comments, which only made matters worse. She finally did, but the backlash had been done. A year after her death POZ Magazine blog posted a never seen letter of apology Summer sent to ACT UP in July 1989. In the stage musical, the book does bring up Summer’s alleged statement of why she said, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. However, this explanation was baffling and brief, which ends with her singing a soulful ballad, “Friends Unknown.” I deeply wished the book went deeper emotionally and explained the controversy from both sides. Another book issue was not fully fleshing out her marriage to Bruce Sudano. This marriage produced two children and lasted till her death. He was incredibly supportive of Summer, wrote music with her, sang with her, toured with her. Alas the book never goes into this. For musicals of well-known individuals, you must show all sides of that person, good and bad and not “skim” over the negative elements of his or her life.
The score for this musical comes from Summer’s legendary, historic catalogue. Hearing the live orchestra play these classic hits was dazzling. There were moments that when the first few bars of the song started, the audience erupted with thunderous applause. What was confusing was why many of the songs were not performed in their entirety. Many of them had a verse or two, the chorus and then either stopped dead in its track or simply fade out. Nonetheless, hearing her music come alive in the theater is a surreal moment for any Summer fan.
Director Des McAnuff and Choreographer Sergio Trujillo use practically an all-female ensemble who also play male roles sprinkled throughout the evening, such as Giorgio Moroder, David Geffen, and Pete Bellotte. There is a reference by Summer at the beginning about androgyny on stage. I started to question if the director and book writers did their research. Summer is a gay icon, her music was always played at gay discothèques, and she had a gay following since uttering those moans in “Love to Love Baby”. Do you know how many drag queens imitated her at these clubs and lip-synced her songs? With the world-wide success of RuPaul’s Drag Race it makes you bang your head on the seat in front of you of a golden missed opportunity here by the creators. I am pretty sure they will not overlook this connection with The Cher Show (another new musical about a gay icon, this time Cher). I assumed this all-female ensemble was to echo the great strides Summer took in fighting Casablanca records and about being a strong woman. It just didn’t work here.
Robert Brill’s scenic design were set pieces of individual furniture for the various (and many) scene changes this musical goes through. Brill along with Projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis relied on what has become the go to method for many productions, projections. Brill created four hanging square screens in the center and squares on the sides. These hanging pieces flew in and out to create formations on which Nieuwenhuis projected an array of photos, art, 70/80’s themed looks, etc. to anchor the time and place where we were in the story. For the finale Brill designed one of the biggest mirror balls I have ever seen! The lighting by Howell Binkley is pure epic disco fabulous. A kaleidoscope of colors, specials, gobos, movers, LEDs, etc. that lit the stage like an exploding fireworks warehouse. Paul Tazewell’s sparkling costumes were tailored and structured to ground the musical in the 70s and 80s. From disco flash pizzazz at Studio 54 to Donna Summer’s concert gowns. He kept the three Donnas in dark blue but made sure when they needed full beaded gowns, they got them. His costumes were gorgeous. Special kudos to wig designer Charles G Lapointe as he used lace front wigs that were full and coiffed to utter glamour.
Jared Zirilli is the lone leading male in the company whose singing voice is the only the audience gets to hear. Zirilli portrays Bruce Sudano, Summer’s second husband. When he and Ariana DeBose even begin the first chords to “Heaven Knows”, the audience exploded in cheers and applause. On the original disco hit that is Sudano’s voice. Zirilli has a dynamic pop/soul tenor voice that brings this classic Summer hit to grand life. As an audience member you wished that he was given more solo work to display his fantastic vocals. Zirilli delivers a magnetic performance of a man who will care and fiercely protect his wife, children, and his wife’s career. The book has weakly written Sudano, but Zirilli overcame that with his first rate acting craft, particularly in the later scenes of Act II dealing with Summer’s health and their children. He is outstanding.
Storm Lever may be tiny in stature, but not in stage presence and talent, for she is titanic on stage as Duckling Donna. Through Lever’s eyes we see the young Donna. Singing with her two sisters to entertain the family and neighbors. There is a horrific revelation that Summer as a small teen was molested by the Pastor of her church. The book again barely skims over this, but Lever peels into her subtext and characterization to show the audience the results of what deafening silence to child molestation can do to a minor. This beautiful actress brings the house down with her gospel song “I Believe in Jesus”. This is a number that will have you choke back tears. Storm’s blinding stage presence and talents match up masterfully with her two co-starring leading ladies.
As Disco Donna, Ariana DeBose is the one who physically resembles Donna Summer the most, of course it helps to have those divine wigs designed to match Summer’s lush hair style. DeBose delivers a tour-de-force performance portraying Summer during her reign as the Queen of disco. There is an amazing costume reveal right before “MacArthur Park” that would make RuPaul gag on her eleganza! There are some emotionally difficult scenes in which DeBose is confronted with her personal and career life colliding. As she struggles with her decisions you see DeBose’s eyes well up in tears that is just heartbreaking. She digs deep into her subtext to fully display and show Summer’s complicated life. Her crystal clear soprano voice won the audience over with such Summer hits as “Love to Love You Baby”, Heaven Knows”, and “Bad Girls”. She slays the house down with not only her vocals, but her flawless dancing technique in “Hot Stuff”! Oh, and this disco diva has gorgeous legs to show off as she executes the disco choreography within this number. DeBose’s portrayal of this icon was phenominal.
To see LaChanze on stage is an inspiring magical journey each time. I’ve had the immense pleasure to see LaChanze in her Broadway debut in Once on This Island, then again during the run of Broadway’s Ragtime. I caught her Tony award winning performance in The Color Purple. As Diva Donna, it is evident why she earned a Tony Award nomination for this performance. After hearing her tackle vocally the vast genres of her past musicals, I’m sure disco never entered her mind. But suffice to say, this Tony winner kills it! Number after number she belts and sustains notes on those iconic disco classics and pumps fresh, exciting new life to this music. For the song “On The Radio”, LaChanze took that sublime soprano voice to wrap herself in the slow piano intro of the song. When it started, several in the audience gasped because those chords immediately clued them in on what song that was. LaChanze could barely be heard over the loud applause. Later on in Act II she delivers a splendid and moving rendition of “Friends Unknown”. LaChanze has so many memorable numbers, including “No More Tears”,” Dim All The Lights”, “She Works Hard for the Money”, and “Unconditional Love”. Her acting craft is exquisite and textured in subtext. She even nailed down the delivery in which Summer will tell jokes to her audience. LaChanze’s magnificent work in Summer reminds audiences why she is one of the best and grandest leading ladies on Broadway today.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical takes the audience back to Studio 54 for the finale. Those familiar cylinder lighting units from the world-famous discotheque magically appear as do the mirror balls. Our three Donnas return to do the Oscar winning Best Song Last Dance, dressed in rhinestone encrusted silver costumes, then joined by the full company also in white bejeweled and sequined costumes. This all transforms the Lunt Fontanne and the audience back to Disco’s glory days as the queen of disco sings to her subjects. It even rains confetti that is shaped in iridescent mirror balls. I am pretty sure Donna Summer is watching all this from above, and her majesty is not only smiling, but her heart must be full of love. She will see she did indeed touched so, so many lives with her music and life. And now its brought to glittering, sparkling life in a smashing new musical at the Lunt-Fontanne! There will never be an artist who can dethrone her or take that title she rightfully earned. Donna Summer is, and forever be, the Queen of Disco.