By Jean Lowerison
‘SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical’
Hold onto your hat — La Jolla Playhouse has a wild ride for you. “SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical” is both visual feast and musical extravaganza — and a show that could only have been directed by Des McAnuff.
The disco queen of the world’s story is told in a nearly two-hour one-act song and talk fest that is clearly aimed at a Broadway audience. It will be a shock if this show doesn’t end up there.
LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born in Boston on Dec. 31, 1948, began singing in church, decided on a music career young, and ended up owning the disco sound of the 1970s, writing her own music and recording 14 Top-10 singles.
No one-trick (or one musical-style) pony, she also won five Grammys (for dance music, R&B, rock and gospel), and reportedly sold over 140 million records worldwide. She also pioneered electronic dance music (EDM) with the pulsed sound of “I Feel Love.” And she performed at the 2009 ceremony in Oslo, Norway when Barack Obama received his Nobel Peace Prize. She died in Naples, Florida on May 17, 2012.
La Jolla Playhouse has pulled out all the technical and electronic stops for this show, which sports multiple traps to bring singers to the stage from underground; lots of projections, no fewer than three cars onstage, blinding lights, and some spectacular tech work to end the show that I’ll leave you to discover.
The show opens with a light on a record turntable. When the arm drops the needle, the stage comes alive with androgynous women singing “The Queen is Back.” There’s movement, and smoke, and then a dissolve to Diva Donna (LaChanze), resplendent in a bright blue sparkly long dress. The concert has turned into a one-woman show; but not for long.
Three Donnas at various stages — pint-sized Duckling Donna (Storm Lever), Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose) and LaChanze’s Diva Donna — will tell (and show, and sing) you her remarkable story.
The young diva-to-be wasted no time in pursuing her dream. She dropped out of school (without mentioning it to her parents) and took the bus to New York, where she was cast for a production of “Hair” — in Munich, Germany.
There she met and married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer. She gave birth to her daughter Mimi in 1973. The marriage didn’t last, but she changed the spelling and kept his last name.
“SUMMER” doesn’t shy away from the less-than-lovely aspects of her life, like sexual abuse by the pastor of her church and being knocked around physically by a “boyfriend” named Gunther. Nor from the unfortunate comment she made about gays, who made up a large percentage of her audience.
But this show, fascinating as it is about her life, is about the music, and McAnuff has found three spectacular women who really do sound like Summer. Every one of them has the purity of tone, the flawless pitch and the credible delivery that Summer had.
If you remember those good old disco days (or even if you don’t), “SUMMER” is a great evening of pop music — you’ll hear some 25 songs — with an interesting story to tell. Get your tickets now.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.