BWW Review: Donna Summer Receives Royal Treatment in SUMMER at La Jolla Playhouse
SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical/book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary & Des McAnuff/songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others/directed by Des McAnuff/choreography by Sergio Trujillo/music supervision by Ron Melrose/La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre/extended through December 24
The world premiere musical SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical currently onstage at the Mandell Weiss Theatre of the La Jolla Playhouse, extended again through December 24, is a kaleidoscope of fun and a feast for the eyes and ears for every Donna Summer fan. Born in 1948 LaDonna Adrian Gaines who eventually became the Queen of Disco used to skip high school classes in Boston Massachusetts and take the bus to New York to audition. She landed her first professional gig in the rock musical Hair and performed it in Munich where she created a sensation. Her hit song "I Feel Love" brought her back to the US...and the rest is history.
In this tribute envelopped with the music of Summer, the Mandell Weiss stage is akin to a high tech concert stage filled with high beam lights and platforms that rise from beneath the stage. We definitely feel the presence of a superstar when Diva Donna (LaChanze) rises to proclaim "The Queen Is Back!" There are three Donnas: LaChanze, Disco Donna played by Ariana DeBose and Duckling Donna, from age 11-16, played by Storm Lever. The play moves swiftly back and forth between young church soloist Donna who thought she was an ugly duckling to the middle Donna becoming an international recording star and on to the older one who narrates and also plays the role of Summer's mother Mary Gaines. No lags, as each scene sets up instantaneously with another one of Summer's hit songs propelling the action forward.
Young Donna was seduced by her minister ( Jenny Laroche); Disco Donna married Gunther Sommer (Aaron Krohn) in Munich and gave birth to Mimi. While she continued touring, Mimi was brought up by her parents ( LaChanze, Ken Robinson); Gunther followed to the US and physically abused Donna. In the meantime she fell in love with guitarist Bruce Sudano (Jared Zirilli) and they eventually married and had 2 other daughters. Summer died of lung cancer in 2012 and despite the difficulties in maintaining her career and personal life as wife and mother, she managed to lead two separate lives. A good Christian, but hardly a saint, she admitted to "being on her knees all her life for one reason or another". In the course of the play, she also apologizes to the gay world and proclaims their friendship. She had been misquoted stating that the bible denied the existence of Adam and Steve. Overall, she is painted as an admirable woman who sang, painted, championed equal rights for women, and legally fought the record companies to get the money she deserved. Keeping her personal life 'private', however, was near to impossible as media consistently glorified her sex symbol image.
This cast is uniformly electric. LaChanze, DeBose and Lever are all very strong with amazing vocal instruments. Essaying Sergio Trujillo's stellar choreography, the chorus are to be commended for their clockwork movements throughout, seen, for example, in the heart-pounding "Hard For the Money" sequence where as studio executives they march like a drill team around a conference table while Summer sings snd struts her stuff on top. Praise to the actors who play double roles like Krohn essaying Summer's close friend/loyal associate Neil Bogart and then turning the tables playing the mean-spirited Gunther.
McAnuff's staging is incredible to watch as Boston living room and other set pieces move out and into place with precision. There is not one, but three cars onstage in one of the most moving segments where Summer believes she is being stalked but it is Bruce following behind in the hopes of catching up to protect her.
On an interesting note, many male roles like Girorgio Moroder are played by female actors. If this is McAnuff's personal choice, it's a brilliant one. Summer believed in and stood for equality for women. What a great choice! Robert Brill's set design, Paul Tazewell's vibrant costuming, Howell Binkley's fabulous lighting and Gareth Owen's mind-blowing sound design ... and Sean Nieuwenhuis's terrific projection design all add so very much to the spectacle.
All of Summer's dynamic hits are present like "Heaven Knows", "MacArthur Park", "No More Tears" - strange, but no mention of a duet with Streisand here - "On the Radio", "Bad Girls", "Hot Stuff", "Unconditional Love", and of course, "Last Dance" as the grande finale.
Flashy dance and more dance is what Donna Summer's music is all about. SUMMER rocks it to the max, giving us an enjoyable theatrical experience and encouraging our eternal reverence of the Queen.
(photo credit: Kevin Berne)