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Regional Reviews: San Diego

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
La Jolla Playhouse
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule

LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, and Storm Lever
Photo by Kevin Berne
Building a successful jukebox musical sounds like it should be easy: take a popular performer or group, compile a catalog of the music from that performer or group, and construct a story that serves to allow the insertion of the music catalog.

It worked for director Des McAnuff, who stewarded Jersey Boys to a long Broadway run (and a continuing presence Off-Broadway, starting today). So, Mr. McAnuff has applied the formula again in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which, as with Jersey Boys, debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Summer is a slicker production, thanks to Robert Brill's scenic design, Paul Tazewell's costume design, and especially Sean Nieuwenhuis' projections design. But, where Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's Jersey Boys book probed the bandmates' relational ups-and-downs as it moved its characters from a gritty Newark street corner to the most spectacular Las Vegas venues, Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Mr. McAnuff are content to gloss a "talented singer-songwriter makes good" tale.

That's a shame, because Ms. Summer made good with music that lives on despite being rooted in the both celebrated and reviled genre of disco. And, mostly, her musical is content not to probe that scene too deeply. The result is a too familiar biographical sketch of an artist who overcame obstacles to achieve success and died too young. Along the way, there's some pretty cringe-worthy dialogue, including a "some of my best friends are gay" scene toward the end that means well but borders on being offensive. All of these things, other than the fact that the book will never rise to the level of artistry of its subject, can, and probably will, be fixed.

The saving grace—and it truly does save—is that the show looks and sounds as exciting as an audience of fans would want. In addition to the white-on-white shell, enhanced to a fare-thee-well by Howell Binkley's lighting, video projections drop in and out on high-def monitors, and furniture rolls on or appears on traps from underneath the stage.

Performers appear that way, too, particularly the three women who play Donna Summer at various stages: Storm Lever as Duckling Donna, Ariana DeBose as Disco Donna, and LaChanze as Diva Donna. All three of these performers are highly capable singers, dancers (to Sergio Trujillo's high-energy choreography) and actors, but only LaChanze is a star. The Donna troika means that the performers can be cast for different strengths (Ms. Lever moves especially well, Ms. DeBose has the glam and the pipes for the disco numbers), but it also means that the star is either off-stage or in the background (she also plays Donna's mother) for a lot of the show.

The rest of the cast surfaces when needed and plays subordinate roles when not. Aaron Krohn does well in this format, playing both of Donna's managers, but Jared Zirilli, as Donna's true love, looks uncomfortable when in the spotlight.

As director, Mr. McAnuff paces the performance sharply and with admirable discipline (though, at more than an hour and a half with no intermission, it's a long sit). He also stages two showstoppers, "MacArthur Park" and "She Works Hard for the Money," and even gives his star an eleven o'clock number ("Friends Unknown"). At the end, he does the disco equivalent of an old vaudeville trick—bringing the flag out on stage—to get the audience up and roaring for the finale, "Last Dance."

Summer may well have a future and do well. It is already a flashy audience favorite. If the writers prop up the book, its future may be even brighter.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, through December 24, 2017, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA. For tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit

Cast members include Mackenzie Bell, Kimberly Dodson, Anissa Felix, Drew Foster, Ari Groover, Afra Hines, Jenny Laroche, Wonu Ogunfowora, Rebecca Riker, Christina Robinson, Ken Robinson, Jessica Rush, Kaye Tuckerman, Aurelia Michael and Andra Caston. Creative team members include Ron Melrose, Musical Supervision, and Gareth Owen, Sound Design.