Actress channels 'Queen of Disco' for 'The Donna Summer Musical' tour

  • Alex Hairston makes her Chicago debut playing "Disco Donna" in the national tour of "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre from Wednesday, Feb. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 23.

    Alex Hairston makes her Chicago debut playing "Disco Donna" in the national tour of "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre from Wednesday, Feb. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 23. Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

 
 
Updated 2/12/2020 5:31 AM

Why have just one actress playing a musical's leading lady when you can cast three?

That's the line of thinking behind a few Broadway shows of the past decade, including "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." The 2018 Broadway biographical musical inspired by the "Queen of Disco" makes its Chicago national touring debut this week at the James M. Nederlander Theatre.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As in "Fun Home" and "The Cher Show," three actresses play the same character. It's an artistic storytelling device to show a single character at different stages of her life.

Alex Hairston stars in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre.
Alex Hairston stars in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre.

"I love the fact that the three of us take on this Donna triangle," said Broadway veteran Alex Hairston, who plays "Disco Donna" -- representing the middle years of the influential late singer and songwriter.

Dan'yelle Williamson is later-life "Diva Donna," while Olivia Elease Hardy plays both the youthful "Duckling Donna" and Mimi, the eldest of Summer's daughters.

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"It's really amazing to learn from Dan'yelle and Olivia," Hairston said. "In the rehearsal process, we got to connect and discover how to build this one Donna all together."

When Hairston first saw "Summer" during its eight-month Broadway run, she zeroed in on "Disco Donna" as the one she wanted to play. With a few scenes set in New York's infamous Studio 54 nightclub, "Disco Donna" has to be a true acting, singing and dancing triple threat.

Alex Hairston, left, Dan'yelle Williamson and Olivia Elease Hardy on platforms share the title role of "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." The national tour makes its Chicago debut at the James M. Nederlander Theatre.
Alex Hairston, left, Dan'yelle Williamson and Olivia Elease Hardy on platforms share the title role of "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." The national tour makes its Chicago debut at the James M. Nederlander Theatre. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

"I dreamed of this role," Hairston said. "I feel like it's what I've been built to do."

Hairston didn't live through the height of disco's popularity in the 1970s. But she grew up hearing a lot of Summer's chart-topping hits thanks to her parents' love for "old-school" music.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Referring to the singer's era-defining and scandalous song collaborations with Giorgio Moroder -- "I Feel Love" and "Love To Love You Baby" -- Hairston called Summer "a pioneer of disco and of bringing that electronic sound into music."

"They have definitely carried over and expanded and highly influenced pop music today," Hairston said.

Alex Hairston makes her Chicago debut playing "Disco Donna" in the national tour of "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre from Wednesday, Feb. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 23.
Alex Hairston makes her Chicago debut playing "Disco Donna" in the national tour of "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre from Wednesday, Feb. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 23. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Hairston is relishing the chance to learn about the late Summer, who died of lung cancer in 2012 at the age of 63. Hairston notes that early in Summer's career, she toured Europe in musicals such as "Godspell" and "Hair," so it's natural that her life would inspire a Broadway show.

"(In Los Angeles on tour) we got to perform her music for people who truly knew her firsthand and loved her and worked with her," Hairston said. "It's such a privilege for me to meet people who tell me stories about her and how much she touched their lives."

• • •

"Summer: The Donna Summer Musical"

Where: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (also 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13); from Feb. 12-23

Tickets: $27-$100; $126.50-$156.50 premium seating

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