BWW Review: SUMMER National Tour Sings and Dances Its Way Into the Hollywood Pantages
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/Hollywood Pantages Theatre/through November 24
The national tour of SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical currently onstage at the Hollywood Pantages, is 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 Pantages stage is like a high tech concert stage filled with high beam lights, background projections and a platform midstage. We definitely feel the presence of a superstar when Diva Donna (Dan'yelle Williamson) enters to proclaim "The Queen Is Back!" There are three Donnas: Williamson , Disco Donna played by Alex Hairston and Duckling Donna, from age 11-16, played by Olivia Elease Hardy . 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 ( Sir Brock Warren); Disco Donna married Helmuth Sommer (Jay Garcia) in Munich and gave birth to Mimi. While she continued touring, Mimi was brought up by her parents ( Williamson, Erick Pinnick). Gunther (John Gardiner), another seducer, followed Donna to the US and physically abused her. He was apprehended and deported. In the meantime she fell in love with guitarist Bruce Sudano (Steven Grant Douglas) and they eventually married and had two 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 is the second time I have seen the show. In La Jolla prior to Broadway the show proved not only a great entertainment but was riveting at every turn. This time around I concentrated on the story and was disappointed in the book for not fleshing out many incidents in Summer's life. For me, it is not three-dimensional. The protagonist sums up how she feels about the facets of her life, but it would be better for us to see them played out in more detail by her parents, sisters, Helmuth, Bruce, Neil and others in her personal and professional worlds. Projections show her paintings, but little is said about how much the great European artists inspired her. And what about her minister who abused her sexually as a girl? Maybe her fear of him and her strict father had more to do with her running away than did her quest for a singing career? It might be better to make a linear play presenting the story without narration from the protagonist. Just lay bare the facts and allow the emotion to flow freely from the entire family. As is, we have glimpses of this and that, but the connection to the bigger picture, to the duality of Summer's persona is not as fulfilling. Donna Summer deserves much more.
This cast are immensely talented. Willaimson, Hairston and Hardy have astounding 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. Praise to the actors who play double roles like Garcia essaying Brian and Helmuth, and Gardiner playing close friend Neil and then turning the tables as 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 (Kyli Rae) 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. 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. I was particularly overwhelmed emotionally this time around by "Friends Unknown" that shows Summer's love of humanity.
Flashy dance and more dance is what Donna Summer's music is all about. SUMMER rocks it to the max, giving us an enjoyable evening and encouraging our eternal reverence of the Queen.
(photo credit: Matthew Murphy)