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BWW Review: LaChanze, Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever Share The Title Role in SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL


"Now, if you want to sing along, you just go right ahead and sing," the hostess of Broadway's newest musical advises her audience at the top of the show. "And if you want to dance, go 'head, flail around!"

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
LaChanze (Photo: Joan Marcus)

But with all due respect to the character whose name provides the title of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, please just stay seated and listen, because you (and those seated near you) won't want to miss any of the sizzling vocals and terpsichorean joyfulness lighting up the Lunt-Fontanne.

This is the smartest, slickest, most entertaining jukebox bio-musical to hit town since JERSEY BOYS, so it's no mere coincidence that the two artists who gave that groundbreaking musical its vibrant movement are back in form here.

Director Des McAnuff, who excels at utilizing wide-scope stage pictures to enhance storytelling, and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, the guy you want to call on for fun, energetic flashiness set to popular music, work with a frequently clever book by McAnuff, Colman Domingo and Robert Cary that zig-zags through the Disco Queen's 63 years on Earth with brisk, storytelling narration.

Introduced with "The Queen Is Back," we're welcomed by Diva Donna, played with shimmering warmth and a legendary glow by LaChanze. She is the older version of the star guiding us through the 100-minute production with remembrances of her younger self.

The bulk of the singing and dancing responsibility goes to Ariana DeBose, who scorches the stage with her dynamic presence as Disco Donna, growing from naïve emerging star to a woman balancing the contrasting responsibilities of family life with growing into a cultural icon.

Storm Lever is terrific as Duckling Donna, the name given to spotlight-loving adolescent growing up in Boston with supportive parents who are unaware of the dark secret behind why their talented child has been assigned church choir solos.

The three stars are supported by a dazzling singing and dancing ensemble of fourteen women, some of whom occasionally play smaller male roles. Of the handful of men in the company (music director Victoria Theodore's band is also made up primarily of women) Ken Robinson stands out as Summer's strict but loving father.

Skipping school regularly to take buses to New York to attend auditions, an important break comes when the young singer is cast in a Munich production of HAIR. In Germany, she finds herself an object adoration by local guys unaccustomed to seeing black women (HAIR's song "White Boys" is used here), and her career as singer/songwriter takes off when, using a unique technique that allows her to feel the mood of the song, she records "Love To Love You, Baby."

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Ariana DeBose (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Although it's a smash, more attention is paid to the number of times she appears to orgasm on the recording, rather than on the quality of her singing voice. A cover of "MacArthur Park' shows the public that she does indeed have significant vocal chops.

On the professional side of the story, the most interesting issue is her need to defend the legitimacy of dance music and its use of synthesizers and advanced recording techniques.

"A synthesizer can sustain notes forever," explains Diva Donna. "People said, 'It's not a real instrument. It's cold, it's robotic, it's artificial.'"

She improvises harmony a bit with her pre-recorded voice before concluding, "Our musical instrument wasn't just the synthesizer. It was the whole recording studio!"

On the personal side, there are matters of abusive relationships, violence, drug use and a controversial public statement regarding homosexuals, all of which are touched upon with quick scenes.

SUMMER is decidedly not an in-depth biography, but rather offers peeks of the artist's private life while focusing on performances of hits like "Heaven Knows," "No More Tears," "On The Radio," "She Works Hard For The Money" and "Hot Stuff," concluding the show with a disco ball, glitter confetti and a few choruses of... well, you know.

Check out tracks from "Summer: The Original Hits"

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From This Author Michael Dale