Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical opened on Broadway in April, 2018, to so-so reviews, playing for eight months largely on the drawing power of such iconic songs as "Hot Stuff," "She Works Hard for the Money," "Last Dance," and her disco-fired rendition of Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park." The songs are staged with tremendous verve, with Sergio Trujillo's high-voltage choreography, recreated for the tour by Natalie Caruncho, performed by a tireless ensemble that never misses a steptalk about working hard for the moneyfurther animated by Russel A Thompson's lighting design. The five-piece band, under Erika R. Gamez' sharp direction and augmented by a synthesizer programmed by Randy Cohen, fills the Ordway's vast space from orchestra to mezzanine to balcony to upper gallery. For anyone who carries within them a kernel of disco fever, this show is going to get the heart racing.
The songs are easily the show's big draw, but they are framed in a well-constructed overview of Summer's life, via Coleman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff's book. The writers divided Summer up into three stages of her life, played by three different actors. Duckling Donna (Amahri Edwards-Jones) covers her adolescent years in a stable family in Boston where her drive to sing was first satisfied at church. Disco Donna (Charis Gullage) reveals Summer's earliest career steps, with a move to Germany in her late teens, a triumphant return to America with the release of "Love to Love You Baby," and several years of back-to-back hit records and tours. As Diva Donna (Brittny Smith) we see a more mature Summer striving (and mostly succeeding) to balance her career with her marriage, children, and growing spirituality as a born-again Christian. Diva Donna also carries the lion's share of narration duties. The gambit works surprising well, making the progress of Summer's public and private life easy to follow, and all three actors are terrific, with Smith earning the title of "Diva" Donna with pull-out-all-the-stops vocals.
The problem, though, is that, while the story being told has some noteworthy ups and downs, it either is not as dramatically interesting as we are accustomed to in bio-musical shows, or the writers failed to infuse it with the level of dramatic fire it merits. Original director Des McAnuff, who is also one of the triad of the show's writers, has the proven gift to launch a searing bio-musical, having directed the best of the lot, Jersey Boys, but lightning doesn't strike here.
Yes, Donna's family resisted her going to Germany at so early an age to pursue her career dreams, but there is no sign of real family strain. She leaves her daughter born in Germany in the care of her parents in order to tour America with her smash hits, but we don't get a sense of this being terribly traumatic for either mother or child. Key episodes, like childhood sexual molestation, a lawsuit against her record company to gain control of her music, and the uproar over an offhand joke perceived as a slam against homosexuals (especially shocking as her disco-fan base included a large contingency from the gay community), are depicted, but it appears that she handles them without breaking much of a sweat. This is not to say that was true in Summer's actual life, only that we are not made to feel the depth of impact these events may have had.
It doesn't help that, aside from the three Donnas, other characters are given little definition, and in the case of her marriage to Bruce Sudano (John Guaragna), a union that produced two more daughters and lasted for the rest of Summer's life, there is little chemistry between Guaragna and Gullage, the Disco Donna. The result is that Summer's biography comes across all right, but without corralling much of our interest. Fortunately, that matters little, since in short order there will be another song to jack up the heat and bring both musical and audience to life.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical features Paul Tazewell's fabulous costume designs, with the three Donnas unerringly color coordinated, and Brandon T. Miller provides period-perfect wigs and hairstyles. The set, in a traditional sense, is very sparefurniture is wheeled in and out when needed, a kitchen counter shows up to form Summer's childhood homebut the scenes are terrifically depicted by way of Chris McCleary's projections, including a breathtaking spectrum of color pouring through a stained glass window above the church where Donna gets her start as a singer.
The show does make the point that Donna Summer not only performed but wrote the majority of those songs, with co-composing credits for 17 of the show's 23 songs. To the degree that Summer: The Donna Summer Musical informs us about the woman behind the music that kept the disco era throbbing, and gives us the pleasure of three talented performers actually inhabiting that life on stage, it is several levels above something on the order of a tribute show. At the end, though, it comes down to the songs. If loud disco beats don't turn you on, or at least strike a nostalgic chord, this might not be your show. If, as seemed to be the case for the majority of audience members, you love the music, it would be nigh impossible not to have a wonderful time.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical runs through January 2, 2022, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $44.00 - $122.00. Educator and High School/College Student Rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain, two tickets per valid ID. For tickets and information call 651 224-4222 or visit Ordway.org. For more information on the tour, visit https://thedonnasummermusical.com/tour/.
Words and Music: Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others; Book: Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff; Director: Lauren L. Sobon, original direction by Des McAnuff; Choreography: Natalie Caruncho, original choreography by Sergio Trujillo; Associate Choreographer: Angelica Beliard; Scenic Design: Robert Brill, adopted for tour by Robert Andrew Kovach; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Costume Coordinator: John P White; Lighting Design: Russel A. Thompson; Sound Design: David Temby; Projection Design: Chris McCleary; Wig and Hair Design: Brandon T. Miller; Orchestrations: Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose; Synthesizer Programmer: Randy Cohen; Music Director: Erika R. Gamez; Music Coordinator: JP Meyer; Casting: Brian J. Enzman; Production Manager: Russel A. Thompson; Production Stage Manager: Kimberly D'Agnese; Artistic Producer: Brian J. Enzman; Executive Producer: William T. Prather.
Cast: Porter Lee Anderson III (Andrew Gaines), Robert Ayala (Giorgio Moroder/David Geffen), Layla Brent-Tompkins (adult Dara); Sy Chounchaisit (Maid/Michael), Mia Davidson (adult Mary Ellen), Amahri Edwards-Jones (Duckling Donna/Mimi), John Guaragna (Bruce Sudano), Charis Gullage (Disco Donna), Ciara Jones (young Dara/Amanda), Lily Kren (Curator), Christopher Lewis (Neil Bogart/Gunther), Francisco Risso (Helmuth Sommer/Bob/Norman Brokaw), Brittny Smith (Diva Donna/Mary Gaines), David Tanciar (Brian/Don Engel/Sommelier), Meridien Terrell (young Mary Ellen/Brooklyn), Emilee Theno (Pete Bellotte/detective), Lamont Whitaker (pastor/doctor), Aubrey Young (Joyce Bogart).
Ensemble: Robert Ayala, Layla Brent-Tompkins; Sy Chounchaisit, Mia Davidson, Ciara Jones, Lily Kren, Marisel Lopez, Francisco Risso, Lathan A. Roberts, David Tanciar, Meridien Terrell, Emilee Theno, Lamont Whitaker, Aubrey Young.