Ariana DeBose (center) in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." Photograph by Jim Berne
Beyond the lavishness of the world-premiere Summer: The Donna Summer Musical at La Jolla Playhouse is the fact, known long before this show was ever written, that Donna Summer was a remarkable talent. Only her association with the title “Queen of Disco,” which this production rightfully emphasizes was for Summer a double-edged sword, has deprived her from being considered a towering figure in more respected genres, such as R&B or even pop.
Summer is an expensive-looking and technologically sophisticated docu-musical constructed around the songs that defined Donna Summer. Many of them were written by Giorgio Moroder or Peter Bellotte, both of whom are portrayed in the show, or by Summer herself, who because of the singularity of her powerfully expressive voice was an underrated songwriter. This musical’s book was written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Playhouse Director Emeritus Des McAnuff, who also directs. Though faithful to the facts of Summer’s turbulent life and career, it is overstuffed and relies on many of the “celebrity rise and fall” tropes so familiar in biographical musicals of this kind: the downside of fame, the struggle to find true love, balancing family and career, reliance on pills, et al. But Summer’s all-too-short life (she passed away at 63) had its share of pain and anguish, especially during her childhood church days, and that is not glossed over, but the storytelling takes a definite back seat to the music.
Three women – Storm Lever (“Duckling Donna”), Ariana DeBose (“Disco Donna”) and LaChanze (“Diva Donna”) – portray Summer during various stages of her life, and impressively deliver her songs throughout. As for those songs, some are truncated or seem out of context, but hearing them again, over less than two hours, is frequently a stirring experience. Among them: “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff,” “On the Radio,” “Bad Girls,” “MacArthur Park” (performed in a spine-tingling sequence), “Dim All the Light,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and, ‘natch, “Love to Love You Baby.” Choreography by Sergio Trujillo and a band conducted by Victoria Theodore add sizzle to Summer, which is best appreciated as a nostalgic concert. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/29/17.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat