Summer: The Donna Summer Musical targets audiences who love the Queen of Disco and want to hear her hit songs performed live in flashy dance numbers, rather than for crowds who prefer a night of sophisticated story-telling. Although it may not be to everyone’s taste, the cast certainly raises the roof of the Lunt-Fontanne theatre.
Critics seem to have it out for biographical jukebox musicals, Jesse Green the co-chief critic for the New York Times for example has called them the ‘Cockroach of Broadway’. This is the format whereby a recording artist’s or group’s hit songs are turned into the soundtrack for their life and a stage show is built around this; Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, or Let it Be, the Beatles musical to name a few.
The latest biographical jukebox musical to grace Broadway is Summer: The Donna Summer Musical centred around the life of LaDonna Adrian Gaines, or better known by her stage name, Donna Summer. The African-American singer, crowned the Queen of Disco, rose to fame in the 70s with hits such as ‘Love to Love you Baby’, ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Last Dance’.
The show is introduced as a concert of Donna Summer’s life and the musical does give you a 100 minute crash course into the highs and lows and more highs and lows of Donna Summer’s life. It skates through many events at a dizzying pace, churning out Donna Summer’s hit songs as they do. There’s a bit of dialogue then one life changing event and pretty much continues in this pattern.
On the one hand, this can be perceived as a missed opportunity to share the story of an interesting woman well. The life of the American high-school drop out, turned German musical theatre star, turned one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time is fascinating and this source material could have blossomed into a captivating show.
But on the other hand, this production is arguably the product of targeted market research. It’s designed for audience members who may not go to the theatre often, but want a good night out to enjoy Donna Summer’s hit songs. The disco music booms from the speakers, there’s an abundance of high-energy ensemble dance numbers and there’s no shortage of bedazzling set pieces. It definitely seeks to pull out all the stops in terms of delivering a glitzy show. This all builds to an electric finale of “Last Dance” which had majority of patrons leap to their feet and dance along.
The stars of the show are our talented three Donnas. The firecracker Ariana DeBose plays Disco Donna, the sweet girl with the formidable voice Storm Lever plays Duckling Donna/Mimi Sommer and charismatic Christina Acosta Robinson (who is the understudy for the role) stars as Diva Donna/Mary Gaines. Apart from the dire German accents (I’ve lived in Germany before so feel that I can rightly criticise this), I cannot fault their overall performances.
I’ve not seen a show before like this one where Donna is portrayed by three actors and further to this the adult Donna also doubles up to play Donna’s mother and the young Donna doubles up to play Donna’s daughter. Although it understandably allowed us to see the different sides of Donna throughout her life, it arguably also made it difficult to empathise and grow with our protagonist.
Despite its drawbacks, I had an enjoyable night and would recommend it to anyone in search of light-hearted and ultimately crowd-pleasing entertainment.