David Mirvish/Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder and others, directed by Des McAnuff, choreography by Sergio Trujillo, Princess of Wales Theatre, Mar. 10 to 22. Tickets available at mirvish.com.
Unless you were living on Mars during the 70s and 80s, you would know that Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco. Every dance club in the world played her music endlessly, from New York’s glittering Studio 54 down to a hole-in-the-wall discotheque. The singer/songwriter was the epitome of glamour whose music defined an era. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is a slick 2017 jukebox show built around her famous hits that is filled with eye-catching production numbers performed by a supremely talented cast.
The show was savaged by some influential New York critics during its 2018 run on Broadway, but the very things they hated, I admire. I find the script to be intelligent. I like the fact that the show touches lightly on aspects of Summer’s life, rather than dredging up a sturm und drang exposé of darkness. We do learn about the hardships that Summer underwent, such as abuse by her church pastor when she was a child, and a failed suicide attempt, but clearly the goal of the show’s creators is to present the lasting legacy of Summer’s hit songs. The musical’s book is like a teaser, giving us glimpses of a life without dwelling on any aspect for too long, and for each vignette, they have chosen a song that fits the situation, 23 hits in all. I call that clever.
The interesting architecture of the musical features three Donna Summers narrating the story. The mature Diva Donna (Dan’yelle Williamson), the pop star Disco Donna (Alex Hairston), and the young Duckling Donna (Olivia Elease Hardy) talk to each other and sing together as the script goes backward and forward in time. And believe me, these ladies can sing up a storm. This approach allows the Donnas to question their choices, for example, Diva Donna asking Duckling Donna why she never reported the pastor’s sexual abuse. It also means that Disco Donna and Duckling Donna can be on stage throughout the show, and not disappear when their chronological time is over. There is also a nifty doubling of roles, with Diva Donna playing her own mother, and Duckling Donna playing Mimi, Summer’s oldest daughter.
Another structural innovation is that the ensemble features mostly women, who also perform most of the men’s roles. In fact, there are only five real men in the entire cast, and I wish that McAnuff and Co. had had the courage to just cast women for everything. I’m assuming that their intention was not only a celebration of Donna Summer, but a celebration of women in general. After all, Summer did fight the music industry to gain control of the publishing rights for her songs, and it is a well-known fact that women recording industry executives are few and far between.
Of the five-member band, three women are on keyboards, with the men on guitar and percussion. This musical could be sending a message of female empowerment. Also in this regard, there is a very amusing moment close to the beginning of the show. We’ve just seen a stunning production number featuring only the women’s ensemble in gender-bending costumes. The back curtain then rises and the five men are revealed, and Diva Donna laconically mentions that, “Oh yes, there are always men in our lives”, or words to that effect.
I also love the deceptively simple visual concept of the show. Scenic designer Robert Brill has created two proscenium arches, one front, one back, that can be lit in different hues as suits the mood. In the middle, are drop down panels in various combinations of patterns, which feature Sean Nieuwenhuis’ stunning projections in bright, almost garish colours. The effect is simply gorgeous. Paul Tazewell has produced a dizzying array of period costumes, but his best feature is having the three Donnas in various shades of blue for most of the show to emphasize their connection. He has clothed them in dazzling, shiny silver for the “Last Dance” finale.
Director Des McAnuff ensures the seamless segues between vignettes, and this show is flawless in this regard, particularly his placement of people. He also knows how to say a lot with a little. In one brief sequence, we see the back of a man wearing a white coat, and across the desk from him are Diva Donna and her husband Bruce Sudano (Steven Grant Douglas). All we see is the couple standing up and shaking his hand, but we know he is a doctor and that the news must be bad. The scene takes all of a few seconds, but it speaks volumes. In fact, Summer died in 2012 of lung cancer. The show is filled with these short and sweet pictures that convey what is visually necessary without words. McAnuff is a master of dissolves.
The director has worked with fellow Canadian choreographer Sergio Trujillo many times. The latter is a supremely gifted dancesmith, who has provided a range of eye-popping numbers, from disco moves, to tits ‘n’ ass sexy, doo-wop, in-your-face sass, and exuberant youth. I usually mind an over-abundance of production numbers, which often seem gerrymandered into a show, but I can honestly say that every group dance feels right, like it genuinely belongs there. Trujillo and high octane dance go hand in hand.
Summer’s disco sound was first worked out with Italian record producers Giorgio Moroder (Kyli Rae) and Pete Bellotte (Jennifer Byrne) in Munich, Germany where Summer was performing the role of Sheila in Hair. The relentless bass line, overlaid by synthesized electronica was the hallmark of the genre. Once we know that, the beat just flies off the stage and you can feel it pounding in your blood. Disco is the heart and soul of the show, which is why the slender book works. Summer’s life is layered over the music. We find out what we need to know about the singer, and nothing more is necessary.
Whether you were alive in Summer’s heyday, or are coming to her music with fresh ears, this vibrant musical is sure to please.