Summer, the undisputed queen of disco when that style of music dominated the charts, died at the age of 63 in 2012. How she ascended to that throne and what she did when musical tastes changed is the basis for this jukebox musical that lasted eight months on Broadway in 2018.
Three incarnations of Summer tell the story. “Diva Donna” (Dan’yelle Williamson) opens the show and welcomes the audience with “The Queen is Back.” “Duckling Donna” (De’Ja Simone, filling in for Olivia Elease Hardy) covers Summer’s formative years, while “Disco Donna” (Alex Hairston) gives us Summer in her prime.
Summer’s life is an interesting one, but the devil is in the details—and you don’t get many of those in the paper-thin book by Colman Domingo, Robert Car, and Director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys).
What you do get is 100 intermission-less minutes of Summer’s greatest hits tenuously tied to the high and low moments in Summer’s life. The end of an abusive marriage is the cue for “No More Tears (Enough is Enough).” Breaking a record company’s contract for their “creative accountancy” is proof “She Works Hard for the Money.” The show ends, of course, with the Oscar- and Grammy-winning “Last Dance” in a massive production number set at New York’s Studio 54 featuring what may be the world’s largest disco ball.
No one goes to a show like Summer for gritty drama or complex characterizations. Audiences flock to jukebox musicals for the music, and Summer does not disappoint in that area. The opening-night audience applauded at the first notes of many tunes and the vocals by Williamson, Simone and Hairston captured the essence and power of Summer without resorting to impersonation.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is as cookie-cutter as musicals come these days. By no means a great show, it is an entertaining one that’s best appreciated by those who lived through the ’70s and who meet the thump, thump, thump, thump of a four-on-the-floor bass drum beat with a smile.