If you’re lookin’ for some hot stuff on Broadway, you’ve come to the right place. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical delivers the seasonal sunshine. It just doesn’t also bring a whole lotta depth.
The biographical show kicks off with “The Queen Is Back” and “I Feel Love” and LaChanze as “Diva Donna,” the eldest of three “Donnas” in the production, addressing the audience and suggesting we’d be seeing “the concert of a lifetime.” Soon, we’re introduced to “Disco Donna” (Ariana DeBose) writhing through recording “Love to Love You Baby” in a studio in Germany and young LaDonna Adrian Gaines — aka “Duckling Donna” (Storm Lever) — performing for family and neighbors in her living room and at church. From there, the 100-minute show begins flying through key moments in Summer’s life, spotlighting highlights but not dancing around the low points like her drug use, financial battles with her record label, and a controversy around comments she reportedly made in the early ’90s regarding the AIDS epidemic.
During the performance I attended, the audience reached a breaking point about midway through and could no longer just tap and bop to the familiar tracks, and they began to sing along with “Heaven Knows” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” Not surprisingly, that participation reaches a fever pitch during the final two numbers and stood up to dance as disco ball-shaped confetti rains down (and if you can’t guess what that last song is, you haven’t been paying attention).
Of course, the music is terrific; Donna Summer isn’t the undisputed Queen of Disco for nothing. But this production lives or dies on the shoulders of its three Donnas — and they are incredible. LaChanze, who won a Tony in 2006 for The Color Purple, DeBose (A Bronx Tale, Hamilton), and Broadway newcomer Lever all deliver vocal performances that made me sit back in my seat and mouth “whoa.” With direction from Des McAnuff and choreography from Sergio Trujillo (who worked together on Jersey Boys), the diverse ensemble takes on a mix of characters, often playing opposite race and gender, a choice that could have been totally gimmicky but works well enough.
As a jukebox musical, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical checks virtually all the boxes: toe-tappingly familiar songs, stellar performances, shiny costumes, and a reminder of the impact of its subject on the music industry at large. It’s also a little thin on story, opting to focus more on sparkling numbers than exposition. B