It may soon officially be fall, but Summer is reigning supreme on Broadway.
Based on the life of the groundbreaking recording artist, Summer: The Donna Musical traces the Queen of Disco’s meteoric rise to fame and the legacy she left behind. Structured as Donna Summer’s final concert, this jukebox musical is a highly entertaining explosion of flashing lights, energetic choreography, fabulous costumes—and, of course, 22 of the greatest hits in Summer’s legendary discography.
The show presents Donna at three stages in her lush career. As Duckling Donna, Storm Lever makes a scene-stealing Broadway debut. Performing such early gems from Summer’s repertoire as “I Remember Yesterday” and “On My Honor,” Lever brings an exuberant charm to the youngest of the three Donnas. Her unique rasp and soaring voice make her sound like a musical theater version of popstar Camila Cabello, and her superb acting underlines what an oversight it was to have her be the only Donna not to land a Tony nomination this past season. Regardless, Summer will act as a launching pad for a very big career for Lever.
After back-to-back runs in shows like Hamilton and A Bronx Tale, Ariana DeBose solidifies her standing as one of the most in-demand performers currently on Broadway. As Disco Donna, she plays Summer at the height of her career. Of the three Donnas represented, hers is the most prominently featured and the one with the biggest character arc.
Unsurprisingly, DeBose is up for the challenge and she does the best job of mimicking Summer’s voice. Her sultry rendition of “Love To Love You Baby,” feisty take on “Bad Girls” and soaring high notes in “Heaven Knows” are all custom-made dance-in-your-seats numbers. But it’s her dynamic “Faster And Faster To Nowhere” and “Hot Stuff” that best showcase her vocal transformation into the First Lady of Love.
As Diva Donna, Tony Award-winner LaChanze (The Color Purple) plays Summer in the third act of her career, while also serving as the show’s narrator. She reflects on her career and the adversities she faced battling sexism, racism and the record industry as a whole. This narrative framework of Summer’s final concert allows all three Donnas to shine as various chapters in her life are highlighted throughout the intermission-free, 100-minute production.
When LaChanze performs songs like “I Feel Love” and “She Works Hard For The Money,” it’s not hard to imagine just how much fun a Donna Summer concert would have really been. With her sparkly outfits, swarms of back-up dancers and string of hits, Summer was truly a pioneer of not just disco but also dance music at large. The way that LaChanze manages to capture and remind audiences of that is as great a tribute as any artist could hope for.
But the biggest standouts are when all three Donnas sing together. Their voices perfectly complement one another, and the ecstatic rush the audience gets from watching these three powerhouses trade harmonies and verses becomes a nearly transcendent experience. It’s no surprise that classics like “MacArthur Park” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” are highlights, but the added element of watching all three Donnas bring these songs to life at once generates an unparalleled level of enrapturing energy. When all three close the show with “Last Dance,” there’s hardly anyone in the theater not on their feet dancing and clapping along.
In an age of productions that honor the legacies of primarily white musicians, it’s great to see a celebration of the work of such an iconic woman of color. In fact, this fall the stories and songs of artists such as Cher, The Go Gos, Carole King, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller will be featured on New York stages. Summer is the only jukebox musical you can currently a buy a ticket to that pays homage to a non-white musical talent. Clearly, despite its efforts, Broadway still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity.
Another refreshing element of Summer is its willingness to touch on some of the tough challenges Summer faced. Albeit briefly, the show illustrates the impact of being molested as a child, witnessing a crime, starting a new life in Germany, struggling to balance career and family, and telling a controversial joke about the LGBT community. The rode to fame isn’t all glamorous, and Summercan be as poignant at times as it is eye-opening.
But, above all, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is an effusive musical biography that even those unfamiliar with Summer’s music and personal history will smile through from start to finish.
PHOTOS | JOAN MARCUS & MATTHEW MURPHY