Donna Summer biopic musical will please long-time fans
***NOTE: The rest of run has been cancelled due to respect social-distancing requests around COVID -19
Donna Summer was a singer, actor, and icon. Called the Queen of the Disco, Summer was loved by millions. However, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre, highlights the fact that Summer did not want that label. She was so much more than the Queen of Disco, and made considerable efforts to break away from disco in her music and as a pop culture icon.
Additionally, Summer was an emblem not just for herself but for all women. Donna pushed for women’s rights, addressed issues of equal pay, became part of the free love movement, and fought (literally) against the men who tried to take advantage of her.
A record player opens and the music begins to play as the production starts. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is presented like a concert. Summer as an older woman opens the show and addresses the audience as concertgoers. From there, the audience is taken back through time to see Summer grow up from a shy girl to a strong woman and the experiences that shape her.
Summer is played by three actresses, highlighting different stages of her life. Olivia Elease Hardy is sweet but resilient as she plays Duckling Donna. Duckling Donna is Summer as a child in her family home and singing at church. Hardy also plays Mimi, Summer’s eldest daughter, later in the play.
Alex Hairston is fierce as Disco Donna, breaking her way into the music scene and challenging music producers who try to take creative control. Dan’Yelle Williamson is strong and proud as Diva Donna, Donna’s older self, a mother and a woman with boundless lived experience. Williamson also plays Mary Gaines, Donna’s mother.
It’s beautiful to see all three Summers onstage together singing as a trio. The three women embody the different stages of Summer’s life. I really enjoyed that these actresses also play Summer’s daughter and mother, creating a cohesive picture of the family tree, Summer’s influences, and the women she influenced. Director Des McAnuff does a great job of highlighting the ties between generations.
In this production, too, female actresses often play male roles. I think this is quintessentially Summer and the gender roles and androgyny that she discusses with her fans and brings to light in her music and performance. Everyone onstage is dressed to the nines in sparkling sequins and bold wigs thanks to costume designer Paul Tazewell and wig and hair designer Charles G. LaPointe.
My guest and I were very impressed by the elaborate costumes and we both loved the music. However, both of us feel the play was a little lacking in substance. I felt that the production often jumped from one big life event to the next, without much contextualization.
I wish this production gave a clearer sense of time passing. Without any discernible markers of the years going by, it can be hard to tell how much time has passed between scenes. Sometimes it seems like days, other times like years but I was mostly just guessing.
Near the end of the production, Donna addresses a homophobic comment she made in a concert in Cleveland, and her intention behind the comment, which was not intended as homophobic according to her. While I don’t think this aside would have been entirely out of place somewhere else in the production, to me it feels like a sore thumb jammed between two unconnected scenes. I found this quite jarring, and it took me out of the play and left me with a lot of questions.
That being said, the music is superb. The actors all have a hugely impressive range and absolutely do the Queen of Disco justice (music directed by Amanda Morton). Audience members literally stood up out of their seats to dance along to some of the iconic songs including Love to Love You Baby, Stamp Your Feet, and Bad Girls.
While I don’t feel like I have an entirely clear picture of Summer’s life even after attending this production, I certainly feel much more connected to and familiar with her music. This production will certainly satisfy Donna Summers fans, but falls a little flat for us Summer novices.
- Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is playing until March 22, 2020 at Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King St W) ***NOTE: The rest of run has been cancelled due to respect social-distancing requests around COVID -19
- Shows run Tuesday to Sunday at 8pm, with additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm, and Wednesdays at 1:30pm
- Ticket prices range from $39 – $175, with rush tickets available for $39 at 9am the day of the performance
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.872.1212, or in person at the box office
- Flashing strobe lights, adult themes
Photo of Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna) and the Company of SUMMER © Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.