Jukebox bio-musicals are seemingly a dime a dozen these days—The Temptations, Gloria Estefan, Carole King, Tina Turner, and Cher have all recently inspired Broadway musicals. The latest to make its way to the Hollywood Pantages Theatre after a run on Broadway last year is Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. It features three actresses working together to portray the Queen of Disco at different points throughout her life, all while singing the artist’s popular dance anthems. While enthusiastic fans of Summer’s music will surely delight in this mostly upbeat show, it is a bit of a mixed bag as a bio-musical, with certain more dramatic aspects of the singer’s life glossed over haphazardly.
With a book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff (also the director), Summer: The Donna Summer Musical features music by not only Summer herself, but also Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and others. The conceit of having three actresses share the role is a smart one, particularly because it is so well pulled off by the talents in this touring company. First, we meet “Diva Donna” (Dan’yelle Williamson), who is in her 50s and at the height of her career. Much of the heavy lifting in the plot is carried by “Disco Donna” (Alex Hairston), who drops out of high school and finds her initial success in the music business. And then there’s “Duckling Donna” (Olivia Elease Hardy), a pre-teen who loves to sing, even if some of the patrons at her church compare her piercing voice to a police siren. The three openly interact throughout the show, a jarring choice that takes some getting used to. There is not much of a fourth wall, here, with Diva Donna often addressing the audience directly and teasing events to come.
The music and performances really take center stage in this production, which does not have much of a set and creates atmosphere with simple yet stylized projections (Sean Nieuwenhuis). The songs, of course, are terrific. From the sultry “Love to Love You Baby” to the contemplative “MacArthur Park” to the fierce “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” the audience’s toes never stop tapping. With a concise running time of 100 minutes, the company breezes through the story of Summer’s life, ending with her death from lung cancer (although in the show, the specifics of her illness are never mentioned) at age 63.
Some themes are strongly carried throughout the show, namely Donna’s independence and frequent battles with the men in her life, both romantic and professional. The most powerful sequence of the show occurs as Disco Donna fights off her abusive ex-boyfriend as Diva Donna stands stock still, staring out at the audience, as if recalling the painful memory she cannot change. But with the exception of this moment, other serious traumas Donna faced and issues she experienced are neglected. Childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest is mentioned only once, and there are only vague mentions of the singer’s battle with drug addiction. The most cringeworthy moment comes towards the end of the show, when Diva Donna randomly expresses remorse for a controversy from the 80s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when remarks she made at a concert were (she and the show say mistakenly) interpreted as anti-gay. This scene comes out of left field in terms of the flow of the story and feels like an afterthought, as if the writers worried at the last minute that LGBTQ-heavy Broadway audiences would shun the musical if it did not face this issue head-on.
Williamson, Hairston, and Hardy are all powerhouse vocalists with magnetic stage presence. The show makes a smart choice in having Williamson also play Donna’s mother, Mary, while Hardy does double duty as Donna’s eldest daughter, Mimi to emphasize the importance of family to Donna’s story and strengthen the onstage relationship between the three actresses. The best bio-musicals combine the fun of the recognizable tunes with a thoughtful story that takes care in unpacking the life of the subject. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical leans a bit too heavily on the former, but the three central performances are deserving of much praise.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical runs at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through November 24th. The running time is 100 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased here. After LA, the tour will play San Francisco, Seattle, Tempe, and more. For more information and to purchase tickets for other cities, click here.