Theater Review: ‘Summer’ Flounders as Meaningful Tribute

From doo-wop to disco, saddle shoes to stilettos, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical chronicles the life of LaDonna Adrian Gaines, also known (on the radio) as the Queen of Disco.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical opened on Broadway in April of last year and was nominated for two Tony Awards for LaChanze (Diva Donna) and North Carolina native Ariana DeBose (Disco Donna). The show closed in December.

Summer’s life reads more like a Lifetime movie or book than a Broadway bio-musical. She came from a good family, was sexually abused by her pastor, found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, moved to Germany to be in an overseas production of the musical Hair, met and married the wrong guy, had a baby, divorced, met and married the right guy, and had two more children before she was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 63. She was also one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, won five Grammy Awards, and was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.   

On music merits alone, the show should work. Vocally Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna), Alex Hairston (Disco Donna) and Olivia Elease Hardy (Duckling Donna) peacock their way through Summer’s songbook reverentially. The ensemble pulsates through Sergio Trujillo’s high-energy choreography with such precision and exactness, it becomes almost dizzying against a backdrop of moving screens and flashing lights. Not to mention, Costume Designer Paul Tazewell’s royal blue, silver sequin, and white color palette is certainly fit for a Queen. So, what could possibly go wrong?

Part of the problem is the show veers away from being a self-proclaimed “concert of a lifetime” to cramming the harrowing details of Summer’s life into a one very long and taxing act (there is no intermission). Diva Donna spends so much time singing, dancing, and rationalizing with her younger selves, after a while, it becomes a little corny and absurd. Three Donnas look and sound more like Dreamgirls or The Supremes than an unapologetic, formidable solo artist, a convention that ultimately takes on a more redemptive tone than a celebratory one.

There are some tender familial moments towards the latter half of the show. And of course, in true formulaic, jukebox musical fashion, there is a megamix of songs at the end that is certainly dance-worthy. But even a joyful last dance, that serves its purpose to temper and appease an antsy audience, won’t bring this powerhouse of a womanist and performer back, nor does this show really dignify Summer in a meaningful way.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical runs through Sunday, March 1 at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit or the RDU on Stage Calendar.

Read Lauren Van Hemert’s RDU on Stage interview with Olivia Elease Hardy (Duckling Donna).

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