Review: Summer-The Donna Summer Musical

by Lynn on March 12, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others.

Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff

Directed by Des McAnuff

Choreography by Sergio Trujillo

Musical Supervision and arrangements by Ron Melrose

Scenic Design by Robert Brill

Costumes by Paul Tazewell

Lighting by Howell Binkley

Sound by Gareth Owen

Projection Design by Sean Nieuwenhuis

Cast: Jennifer Byrne

Steven Grant Douglas

Jay Garcia

John Gardiner

Tamrin Goldberg

Alex Hairston

Olivia Elease Hardy

Carmen Anika Hill

Brooke Lacy

Trish Lindström

Maria Lucas

Jo’Nathan Michael

DeQuina Moore

Erick Pinnick

Kyli Rae

Crystal Sha’nae


Sir Brock Warren

Candace J. Washington

Brittany Nicole Williams

Dan’yelle Williamson

Jennifer Wolfe

A cookie-cutter, formulaic musical with lots of dazzle and little substance.

The Story. Summer, The Donna Summer Musical is  the story of pop icon Donna Summer (1948-2012) from three points in her life: Diva Donna, when she was an established star;  Disco Donna as she was making a name for herself as the Disco Queen; and Duckling Donna when she was a kid growing up in Boston, singing in church.  It covers her life with the barest of details—born in Boston; didn’t graduate high school because she auditioned for a tour of Hair that played in Germany; met Giorgio Moroder and began writing songs with him and recording them. Her fame grew as did her musical output. She hit the height of her fame in the late 1970s. She died of cancer in 2012.

The Production.  Summer-The Donna Summer Musical  is a typical Des McAnuff musical. The sound system blares the music. Robert Brill’s set is simple and glitzy. There are constantly moving psychedelic coloured screens that float down, sideways and up. The large cast are almost always on the move. A ticker-tape band moves across the top of the stage telling us where we are: Boston, Munich, LA, etc. There are no dates that set the time period for each event.  Howell Binkley’s complex lighting is there for flash and dazzle. Paul Tazewell’s glittery costumes shimmer and sparkle for the three “Donnas” and are colourful for the other characters.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography has a breathless energy for the whole company and a 1970s feel with a specificity for each of the Donnas when they sing either together or separately. It’s to Trujillo’s credit that the body movement and hand placements seem so right for these ‘Donnas” in that time period.

The singing of Dan’yelle Williamson as Diva Donna, Alex Hairston as Disco Donna and Olivia Elease Hardy as Duckling Donna is strong. They all have voices that hit and hold the high notes for manipulative effect. The most natural performer of the three is Alex Hairston as Disco Donna. The music suffuses every movement. There is a natural ease when she sings “Love to Love You Baby” or “Hot Stuff” for example. Her voice soars. Olivia Elease Hardy is Duckling Donna, emerging from her girlhood. When she sings in church we witness what this Donna will later become. Hardy is sweet, innocent and compelling. Dan’Yelle Williamson as Diva Donna is a less natural performer than the other two. You see the gears working to impress and she certainly does with “Friends Unknown” complete with ear-piercing high notes held to guarantee applause. And she milks it for all it’s worth.

Coleman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff are credited with writing the book. It is the barest accumulation of facts and information that are tenuously strung together. There are hints of information about Donna’s early life. When she went to Germany she met Giorgio Moroder—a giant in music—but given short shrift as her writing partner. She meets Helmuth Sommer (a spelling mistake will change her last name to “Summer” and she kept it) in one scene and several scenes later they are married with little interaction in the middle. There is a reference to her dependence on pills but that’s barely developed. Her troubling homophobia is glossed over. You don’t go to a Des McAnuff musical for anything resembling a biography. And in this case you certainly don’t go for the acting, which is plodding.  What’s left are the songs. And Summer, The Donna Summer Musical packs in 23 mostly hits (“I Feel Love”, “No More Tears” (“Enough is Enough”), “Bad Girls”, etc.

There are several male characters in the show but only four are played by men. The rest are played by women in very short wigs, tight pants and jackets all gyrating and pelvis thrusting to try and suggest some kind of raunchy-maleness. It’s all very odd since they are obviously, physically women playing those male characters.

Comment. Summer, The Donna Summer Musical is frenzied with energy, dazzle and glitz. But it is devoid of any substance and after 1 hour and 45 blaring minutes without an intermission, you just want it to be over.

Mirvish Productions Presents:

Opened: March 11, 2020.

Closes: March 22, 2020.

Running Time:  1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission.

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