Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Barefoot in the Park
One recent example of this trend is Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. While it only managed a Broadway run in 2018 of around nine months, and the book doesn't delve as deep as it could into Summer's life, the songs the show uses are a non-stop assortment of some of the biggest hits from the disco era, including "Hot Stuff," "Love to Love You Baby," "Bad Girls," and "Last Dance." The national tour of the musical, which just opened in Tempe for a week long run, features a talented cast, including a trio of exceptional actresses who play Donna Summer at various stages in her life, and the show provides an avenue for a look into the life of a famous woman most people probably don't know that much about, beyond her string of hit songs.
As the musical depicts, Summer, who died in 2012 at the age of 63, faced many challenges as a successful African-American woman in an industry mostly run by white men. She also dealt with issues of addiction and molestation which the book by Des McAnuff, Colman Domingo, and Robert Cary touches upon. But the book doesn't do much more than scratch the surface of Summer's intriguing life. While the 100-minute, one-act musical is fast paced, for a woman who led such an interesting life, it would have been nice if the show went deeper, especially in regard to the impact and details of her addiction, her molestation at such a young age, her illness, her lawsuit against her first record company, Casablanca, and even other topics that seem to come out of nowhere but quickly disappear, such as her love of painting. The controversy she faced over homophobic remarks she claimed were taken out of context and that lasted several years is represented, but almost treated as a throwaway and shoe-horned into the show in the last few minutes.
Fortunately, the pulse-pounding music, which is expertly orchestrated by Bill Brendle and Ron Melrose with arrangements by Melrose, is exceptionally sung by the cast. Summer was dubbed the "Queen of Disco" and had so many hit songs that hearing them sung back to back emphasizes just how successful she was, and even if the book doesn't do much more than skim over the details of her life, it does give a sense of the struggles she faced, the immense love she had for her family, and the strength and power she had in enduring the many issues in her life. In that regard, it is a celebration of a powerful woman who also had an amazing voice.
Director McAnuff's decision to use three different actresses to portray Summer at various ages has its pros and cons. While it doesn't truly help the audience have a deep, emotional connection to the woman, as it might if the role was played by a single actress, McAnuff wisely uses two of the women to also play Summer's mother and daughter. He also incorporates all three actresses throughout to narrate and comment upon the action. That casting decision also allows for some excellent duets and trios of some of Summer's biggest hits, including a wonderful version of "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" sung by the three leads that also serves as a comment on the physical abuse Summer dealt with.
The three actresses who depict Summer in the touring production are Dan'yelle Williamson, who plays Summer at the peak of her career as Diva Donna; Alex Hairston as Disco Donna, when Summer first hit it big and found her initial success; and Cameron Anika Hill as the teenage Duckling Donna. All three are incredible singers and performers with soaring voices that deliver Summer's hit songs with plenty of energy.
The musical begins with Diva Donna looking back on her life, and Williamson provides a poignant line delivery and compassion to the part that grounds it in realism and occasional heartbreak. She also expertly plays Summer's mother in the flashback scenes. Hairston is a firecracker performer with a soaring voice that sizzles on some of Summer's biggest songs, including the seductive "Love to Love You Baby." Understudy Hill performed the teenage Duckling Donna on opening night in Tempe and her youthful energy and warm voice excelled in the role.
While most of the supporting parts are small and played by the ensemble, Steven Grant Douglas is excellent in the role of Summer's second husband. He forms an immediate and realistic connection with Hairston and their duet of "Heaven Knows" is filled with passion.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo provides non-stop period dance steps that are very enjoyable. Robert Brill's scenic design is minimal, with just the use of a few small set pieces and video projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis to quickly move us from one location to the next. Fortunately, Paul Tazewell's costumes are exceptionally period perfect, Howard Binkley's lighting design is excellent, and the sound design by Gareth Owen delivers crisp and incredibly clear vocals and dialogue throughout.
While Summer: The Donna Summer Musical may not be an entirely successful musical bio, it does make for an infectious journey back to the days of disco and a fun way to learn more about Summer and to experience the irresistible and well-known hits she performed.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical runs through January 12, 2020, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, visit www.asugammage.com or call 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit thedonnasummermusical.com.
Book by Colman Domingo and Robert Cary
Cast: (in order of appearance)