Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

A jukebox musical based on the Queen of Disco boogies into the La Jolla Playhouse.

Ariana DeBose (center) as Disco Donna with the cast of La Jolla Playhouse's world premiere of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
Ariana DeBose (center) as Disco Donna with the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
(© Kevin Berne)

The backlash against the popular dance music of the '70s claiming that "disco is dead" could not be more false. Disco has survived the ages and has never left the zeitgeist. One of the era's conquering heroes, Donna Summer, receives a stage mounting of her rocky life and gargantuan hits in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Despite three spirited performers enacting the late singer-songwriter, the lazy script and perfunctory direction fails to energize the production.

LaDonna Adrian Gaines (played at different periods by Storm Lever, Ariana DeBose, and Tony winner LaChanze) grows up in a middle-class world with her loving parents, but itches for something spectacular, beyond the church choir. She finds her inner diva while recording her first hit song, "Love to Love You Baby," an eroticized anthem, with legendary producer Giorgio Moroder (Mackenzie Bell). Questionable business deals, bad relationships, and drug abuse engulf her like a hurricane, but building a stable family with her musician husband (Jared Zirilli) and a renewed love of God and religious structure fills her with peace. Even a cancer prognosis that finally claims her life in 2012 is incapable of stealing her spirit.

Famed director Des McAnuff had great success creating a similar bio-musical format for Jersey Boys, but Summer finds no suitable storyline to keep the audience intrigued. The script he cowrote with Colman Domingo and Robert Cary dances frantically from one plot point to another with the finesse of a runaway train. The stylistic choices, such as having three separate personifications of Donna, with Diva Donna (LaChanze) also playing her mother, and casting most of the male roles with females, could have purpose if the authors had clearly understood and communicated their motivations for those specific choices. Unfortunately, the script has dialogue coming out of the wrong characters and invents a public apology that rings false.

McAnuff's staging is flashy and glittery but vapid. Speeding cars, revolving lights, and a platform that rises from below the stage many times seem like razzle-dazzle distractions instead of enhancements. Sergio Trujillo's choreography feels more like a beginner's disco dance class on a cruise ship, hardly appropriate enough to convey an entire musical movement.

All three performers playing Donna strut with empowerment. They have outstanding pipes, and they capture Summer's essence and trademark sexuality. When the three sing Donna's hits together, they make a joyful noise. The other actors aren't really given characterizations, though, so there are no moments for anyone in the background to shine outside of the three Donnas.

Musical director Victoria Theodore and orchestrators Ron Melrose and Bill Brendle re-create the famous anthems, like "Last Dance," "Bad Girls," and "She Works Hard for the Money," with exhilaration. Paul Tazewell's glamourous costumes, mostly in blue or stark white, capture the glitzy extravagance of Studio 54.

The music composed and sung by Donna Summer encapsulates the passion and naked sensuality of the disco era and features some of the biggest smashes of any decade. But the generic and uninspired writing sells out Summer's significance. More than anything, it's a show full of emptiness.

Featured In This Story