BWW Review: SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL National Tour at DPAC
DPAC has "Unconditional Love" for Donna Summer this week as the National Tour of DONNA: THE Donna Summer MUSICAL is in town. The show uses classic hits of the disco queen like "Love to Love You Baby" and "Hot Stuff" to craft a "concert of a lifetime." Three women portray Donna at different periods of her life -- Duckling, Disco, and Diva -- to tell how she went from a young girl singing in church in Boston to a top creator of dance floor hits. The show is largely about the adversity that she faced throughout her career, a story that even those familiar with her music may not know.
The music is entirely made up of the hits of Donna Summer's career, aside from one song from the musical "Hair" which she performed in abroad, and the book was written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff. The show premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 2017 and on Broadway in 2018. Directed by Des McAnuff, the musical notably has an entirely female ensemble with only a handful of men in the whole cast.
Diva Donna leads the show, talking directly to the audience as she presents her life story. The atmosphere of the show feels somewhere between a traditional musical and a concert and the design matches that. Paul Tazewell's costumes are glittery and flashy while Robert Brill's scenic design is sparse with only a few set pieces and projection screens. The lighting by Howell Binkley resembles concert lighting with lots of showy spotlights and flashing lights.
The high-energy choreography by Sergio Trujillo is one of the highlights of the show. It's impressive how well the songs are woven into the narrative; one of the most effective is the "She Works Hard for the Money" number as Donna sues her record label, Casablanca Records. It's a more emotional show than you might expect, particularly as it deals with Donna's close relationship with her parents and her three daughters and her fight with lung cancer which she passed away from in 2012.
Dan'yelle Williamson holds down the show, playing both Diva Donna and her more demure mother, Mary Gaines. She has a powerful voice and great chemistry with the audience. Olivia Elease Hardy, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, holds her own as Duckling Donna and also plays Donna's eldest daughter, Mimi. She brings a youthful exuberance to both roles along with her great vocals.
It's Alex Hairston as Disco Donna who is the true star of the show and does the best job at recreating Donna Summer's iconic sound. From her dancing to her singing to her acting, she does a fantastic job bringing Donna to life. Steven Grant Douglas plays Bruce Sudano, Donna's second husband, and has a great voice that melds well with Hairston's.
The show definitely takes a few numbers to get into its groove and for the audience to acclimate to its unique structure. It utilizes laugh and applause tracks at certain parts which can be a bit awkward in a less full, week-night audience where it's very apparent. But at just an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, the show is perfectly paced and never once does it seem to drag.
SUMMER ends with two of Donna's most well-known hits, "Hot Stuff" and "Last Dance," and it's just about impossible not to bop along in your seat. You're sure to have at least one of the songs stuck in your head the whole way home. Not only is SUMMER a great concert-musical experience; it's a great reminder of the difficulties that women like Donna Summer faced and still continue to face in the music industry and the world at large today. SUMMER is at DPAC until February 29.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy