BWW Review: SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL at Rochester Broadway Theatre League
The Rochester Broadway Theatre League opens its 2019-2020 season with a glitzy, glamorous, and soulful look at the queen of the disco era, Donna Summer. "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical", which began its national tour in Rochester this week, isn't just for children of the 1970's, but for anyone who wants a more intimate look into the life and career of one of the music industry's most iconic figures.
"Summer" takes the audience back through the many stages of Donna Summer's life and career, exploring the ups and downs of her childhood, early years as a performer and recording artist, and chart-topping fame, all through powerful performances of Summers' best-known hits brought to life by different actresses playing Donna. "Duckling Donna" (Olivia Elease Hardy) transports audiences back to the 1950's and 60's, when Summer was finding her voice among her six other siblings in their working-class home in Boston, Massachusetts. "Disco Donna" (Alex Hairston) brings Donna to life during her early years as a singer, when she was making a name for herself at the top of the charts with hits like "Love to Love You Baby" and "MacArthur Park", as well as going through darker chapters including divorce, legal troubles, and domestic violence. "Diva Donna" (Dan'yelle Williamson) showcases Summer in her 50's and 60's at the height of her career.
"Summer" sticks to the conventional jukebox musical format that audiences are familiar with from recent hits like Jersey Boys, Jagged Little Pill, and On Your Feet! (among many others), in which the history and legacy of a well-known recording artist is woven in-between performances of their most well-known hits.
As a concert, "Summer" is a real powerhouse. All the Donnas take turns giving amazing performances of her biggest hits, set against a bright and flashy set and authentic production design. Standout musical numbers include "Love to Love You Baby", "She Works Hard for the Money", "I Believe in Jesus", "No More Tears", and of course, the iconic "Hot Stuff". These knockout musical numbers are further amplified by an ensemble of jaw-droppingly talented dancers and a funky band that sounded like they might blow the roof off the Auditorium Theatre.
The three main Donnas--Hardy, Hairston, and Williamson--give compelling and authentic acting performances, capturing both the highs and lows of Donna Summer's tumultuous life and career. Unbeknownst to many, including myself, Donna didn't slide easily into fame and stardom. She battled sexism, opportunistic and dishonest figures in the music industry, and even briefly walked away from performing. The three main actresses brought poise and believability to Donna during the many stages of her life.
Narratively, "Summer" feels a little wooden. The more intense and dramatic moments of Donna's life-an abusive marriage, sexism, legal battles-seem quickly glossed over in a rushed attempt to get to the next big musical number, a criticism you often hear of many well-known jukebox musicals, leading one to believe that it's more a flaw of the format and not so much of this particular production.
While the storyline of "Summer" feels a little pasted together and not particularly riveting, it also features high-octane musical numbers, crisp and precise choreography (kudos to choreographer Sergio Trujillo), and period costumes that look straight out of the 1970's and 80's (credit Paul Tazewell and associate designer Susan Makkoo). It would probably work better as a concert rather than a traditional narrative musical, but it certainly makes for an electric and high-energy night at the theatre.