Theater Review: SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL (National Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 14, 2020

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


As the song says, “Dim All The Lights” — or set them to scorching splendor. Anyway, the giant mirror ball is back, scintillating and scattering flecks of light throughout the Nederlander Theater. The ensemble is gallivanting in sequin suits and skirts. The song is “Last Dance,” the final exaltation in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. It’s an apt apotheosis following 100 minutes of retro disco of the highest caliber.

We don’t need to know that Summer died eight years ago, at 62, of lung cancer. As the very first song puts it, “The Queen is Back.” As if she ever left…

In fact there are three “queens” in this Broadway tour, playing in Chicago until February 23: Duckling Donna (Olivia Elease Hardy) is the impressionable Boston pre-teen who, debuting in 1968 in Hair!, moves from gospel to soul to pop with lighting speed.

Disco Donna (Alex Hairston) is the phenom who married a man from Munich, the city where she launched into the singer’s stratosphere with “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love” — which is just what her audiences did too. Summer returned to America in 1975, just in time to be crowned the “Queen of Disco.” The championship was utterly unchallenged on dance floors everywhere, from Studio 54 to eternity.

Finally, Diva Donna (Dan’Yelle Williamson) looks back on five Grammy Awards and a chart-busting, barrier-breaking legacy of “Hot Stuff” and “Unconditional Love,” as well as a blown-up scandal in which she seemed to attack her huge gay following.

Very much in the storytelling spirit of such jukebox/bio musicals as The Buddy Holly Story, Jersey Boys, and especially Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, this 2017 creation with songs by Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others and a book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and director Des McAnuff, shares the life through the music — two dozen near and solid hits performed by 22 hoofers and belters.

Played by a busy band of four, the electronic sound is back, along with classics like “Bad Girls,” “Stamp Your Feet,” “MacArthur Park,” “I Believe in Jesus,” and “She Works Hard for the Money” (here a tribute to working women everywhere and particularly to Summer’s litigation to get full payment for her studio success).

The look fits the sound. Electric blue proscenium frames focus the marvelous video panels whose projections (by Sean Nieuwenhuis) paint the stage in more colors than eyes can register. For a show that’s about disco as much as Donna, there’s much less group choreography (by Sergio Trujillo) than you’d expect, mainly at the start and end.

But in between there’s enough of the real and legendary Donna Summer, manifested three-fold, to satisfy the “Friends Unknown” as “I Remember Yesterday.” Not a dull note or moment for club kids of all ages.

photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
national tour
reviewed at Nederlander Theatre;
ends in Chicago on February 23, 2020

tour continues nationwide
for dates and cities, visit Donna

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