Summer: The Donna Summer Musical Is the Party Broadway's Been Looking For
Storm Lever, Ariana DeBose, and LaChanze collectively play the queen of disco.
Carole King, Gloria Estefan, Tina Turner, Cher. The number of singers with musical biographies is steadily growing, and audiences have been well-schooled in the story arc they should expect from the genre: Artist discovers their talent. Artist unexpectedly shoots to fame. Artist suffers a personal crisis. Artist learns a lesson (usually something akin to be careful what you wish for).
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical doesn't entirely reject that formula. After all, director Des McAnuff already got a Tony-winning Best Musical out of it with Jersey Boys, which follows the rise of the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. However, the joyful disco extravaganza, now open at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, shakes up the recipe just enough to remind us that there's more than one way to get flavor out of the Broadway biomusical.
Having women as phenomenally talented as the three sharing the title role spices things up as well. Of course it takes star power to play the Disco Queen — but it takes an extra sprinkling of fairy dust to sell the handful of tired tropes that have been slipped into the book, written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and McAnuff: Storm Lever, making her Broadway debut as the youngest "Duckling Donna," shows us the church solo that made Donna decide to make performing her life (she sings "On My Honor" beautifully, and gives its romantic themes a twist with her childlike innocence); Ariana DeBose, as rising star "Disco Donna," gets to reenact the singer's first time hearing "Love to Love You Baby" on the radio; and the incomparable LaChanze, as the show's omniscient narrator and later-life "Diva Donna," eventually gets her solemn moment at a grand piano, bringing the house down with her eleven o'clock number, "Friends Unknown."
Diva Donna is our cruise director for the evening , performing what she calls the "concert of a lifetime" as memories of her past selves flow by (scenic designer Robert Brill, projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis, and lighting designer Howell Binkley seamlessly fuse their contributions to take us from Donna's childhood living room, to church, to the disco in the blink of an eye). It's a structure that does invite the saccharine moments listed above, but the nonlinear narrative opens more doors than it closes. A life story rarely follows a clean arc, and rather than shoehorning Donna Summer's biography into the proper narrative shape, McAnuff and his collaborators have pieced together vignettes from her life to illuminate what they're claiming was her life's primary battle. And ironically enough — for a show created almost exclusively by men — that battle was the fight to reclaim her identity from a collection of controlling patriarchs.
In a statement-making directorial choice, the entire chorus of Summer is composed of women (playing both women and men at various points), while a group of five male cast members, introduced as "the men" by Diva Donna at the top of the show, are revealed in a menacing cluster. Over the course of the show, we meet her strict but loving father (played by Ken Robinson), her abusive lover Gunther (Aaron Krohn, doubling as record executive Neil Bogart with whom Donna later engages in a contentious lawsuit), and her second husband Bruce Sudano (Jared Zirilli), who becomes the story's glossed-over good guy, offering the show a crumb of #NotAllMen.
Aside from costume designer Paul Tazewell and wig designer Charles G. LaPointe's fabulous collection of male looks for its female ensemble (never have Broadway ladies been set up with such finely tailored suits and flare pants), it's a clever theatrical move that cuts the self-seriousness with a little light-hearted camp, and allows the audience to see a world ruled by powerful white men without creating another Broadway show filled to the brim with…white men.
And never underestimate the power of seeing a woman take the lead in a spinning and dipping disco partner dance (Sergio Trujillo brings the '70s and '80s to life with some of the most fun ensemble dancing of the season). Of course, the woman typically being spun and dipped is Disco Donna DeBose, who is slowly proving herself to be one of the truest triple threats working on Broadway. As someone who can sing like a pop star and command a scene like a leading lady, all while besting the chorus dancers, she's a unicorn due for some recognition.
Not to diminish the performances of Lever and LaChanze who also sing the disco dust out of Summer's greatest hits. Thanks to the show's thorough suspension of disbelief, all three Donnas frequently get to sing together, most notably in the song "MacArthur Park" — Jimmy Webb's confusing anthem about leaving cake out in the rain. That number, more than any other, summarizes the feeling of being at Summer: The Donna Summer Musical: "This is a little silly, but I'm having a great time ."