The Des McAnuff-directed Summer: The Donna Summer Musical begins with a seasoned Donna Summer, or Diva Donna (Dan’yelle Williamson), recounting how in her early days, a colleague asked her what people will be doing years from then. She responded she didn’t know, but one thing’s for sure: they’d be dancing.
Though the “The Queen is Back” opening number was crowded with several dancers and somewhat blinding outfits on stage, what follows is a fascinating exploration of a life well lived. This touring musical (book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and McAnuff, featuring hits created by Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and others) breezes through the stages of Summer’s life, from childhood as Duckling Donna (Olivia Elease Hardy) growing up in Boston to Disco Donna (Alex Hairston) who becomes the queen of 1970s disco, to Diva Donna, who wants to slow down and enjoy family life.
Throughout the production Diva Donna provides context to what’s happening in her life and in her head. Moments of joyous relief, angry thought, and everything else in between is expressed by older Donna, who now has the wisdom to understand the sometimes-reckless decisions of others and herself and breaks it all down for the audience.
From top to bottom, the production is all glitter, sparkle, afros, leather and animal print: a testament to the glamorous life of the legendary singer. (Paul Tazewell created the costumes, with wig design by Charles G. LaPointe.) Yet the glamour was not without difficulties.
In every stage of life, she has loved and lost, in one way or the other. As a child, she lost friends in church who said her voice sounded like a police siren. Donna of the disco era fired (and sued) her manager Neil Bogart (John Gardiner) when she learned he was misappropriating her money, and Diva Donna suffered an ultimate loss, laying her parents to rest. Yet still, the groovy performer persisted.
Messages of independence and equal pay loom large when Donna’s lawsuit against Casablanca Records comes up, accompanied by an energetic and profound performance of “She Works Hard for the Money” that’s enough to make every member of the audience as angry as the singer must have been upon learning that she hadn’t been receiving the fair fruits of her labor.
A standout moment from this number is when an unnamed lawyer, who is played by someone appearing to be a Black woman, reveals that Donna is in an exploitative contract and says, “This may be disingenuous coming from a middle-aged white guy like me.” Though played for laughs, it’s hard to miss the sheer amount of women playing people presumed to be men throughout the production. From top hats and suits to short wigs and canes, a subtle, yet forthright, statement is made about how in the high point of Donna’s career, gender lines were blurred within the disco (and often queer) community, as they are now.
Summer’s struggle with the antidepressant Marplan and suicidal thoughts are stepping-stones to her recovery from the pressures of a fast-paced career, showing how the disco queen dealt with her own depression and anxiety offstage.
The final scenes of the musical end before her demise; she and her daughters sing “Stamp your Feet” from 2008’s Crayons (her last studio album), when she discloses she has cancer. And “Friends Unknown” honors friends who died of HIV/AIDs years prior, offering possible hope of redemption for her rumored past hurtful remarks about a community who adored her. (Summer reportedly said “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” at a 1983 concert, though she denied ever calling AIDS “divine retribution.”) From there, up-tempo “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” close the production.
At the end of it all, Donna Summer proved herself to be more than just the “disco queen” of the 70s. But even if she’s only remembered for disco music, Summer reminds us that that’s A-OK, too. v