Once again, disco is alive and well and it is at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street, where “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is playing. Disco balls, disco dancing, the disco scene garb and the glitter—it’s all back and it’s fantastic! You won’t be able to stop yourself from singing along and you are actually encouraged to do so. People were standing in their seats and dancing!
Now you may wonder, who could they possibly get to perform Donna Summer’s hits and do them justice? The answer: It’s not just one exceptional singer but three, and they are led by the one and only LaChanze, Tony Award winner for “The Color Purple.” She is joined by Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever, who is making her Broadway debut. Each woman plays a particular stage in Summer’s life. LaChanze is Diva Donna—the mature stage, DeBose is Disco Donna and Lever is Duckling Donna, a young girl singing in the church. These ladies perform famous Summer hits, including, “I Feel Love,” “Love to Love You Baby,” “MacArthur Park,” “Heaven Knows,” “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” “On the Radio,” “I Love You,” “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Dim All the Lights,” “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance.” I love how the music that Summer performed, a lot of which she also wrote, was music that acknowledged all the hard work that women do.
This musical brought back so many memories from my youth; it’s amazing the role that music plays in our lives. What’s brilliant about this musical is that Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, who wrote the book, managed to tell Summer’s story through her music and let the world know the joys, struggles and the inner demons that the star had in her life. She went from being a shy girl—Donna Adrian Gaines—who was encouraged to sing by her father, Andrew Gaines (played by Ken Robinson) and her mother Mary Gaines (also played by LaChanze) to a girl who would perform in her living room singing with her two sisters in front of friends and family, to a young girl who dropped out of high school after she went to New York to audition and got a role in “Hair.” She is a girl who was discovered by a German producer and her career began to come together, starting off with “Love to Love You Baby.” I was astonished to learn the things that Summer was insecure about and I think they will
surprise you also.
The book writers let you know the world that Summer lived in and that it was a time when women were limited in their role in society. It was a time when women were pigeon-holed into certain roles and categories. It’s funny to think of Summer as the Queen of Disco, only to find out that she didn’t appreciate that title and felt that it limited her. It was interesting to learn about her personal life. She has a skeleton in her closet from her youth that is shocking to find out. She also faced racism and being thought of as a sex object. There were so many negative things that were said about her when she became a big singing star. I appreciated how the writers let the audience know most of the pivotal moments of her life. The only thing I found lacking was they didn’t finish the story. Although we are told that Summer was ill, we don’t know what she was ill with or when she died. That is the only additional information I would have liked the musical to include.
But, I must tell you that Summer was a fighter; she had to stand up against abusive men, including a producer who tried to rob her blind, and she had to figure out her priorities in life. A lot of times we think that seemingly successful singers have it all, but we really don’t know the half of it. “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” puts it out there.
I simply loved the honesty in this musical, and the music is off-the-charts. You would hear the intro beats and everyone’s hands started to clap in time. It was like being in a disco and you felt your shoulders moving and your upper body swayed as you released the all-familiar words to these great songs from your lips. You know all the words, at least I know I do, and I so enjoyed singing them with all the other audience members.
Another aspect of this musical that is very cool is the nontraditional casting. It was amusing how they had women playing men’s roles and sometimes Black women playing white men.
“Summer” is spectacular on Broadway! The costumes by Paul Tazewell will take you back to the era, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is stunning to watch and makes you want to do the hustle at your seat, which if there was room I believe some audience members would have. Des McAnuff’s duel role as director contributes to the cohesiveness of the dynamic. Hustle on down to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and you too can sizzle with “Summer”!