Overstuffed Donna Summer bio-musical squanders its disco-filled promise

  • Alex Hairston, left, Dan'yelle Williamson and Olivia Elease Hardy share the title role in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." The national tour continues its Chicago debut at the James M. Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 23.

    Alex Hairston, left, Dan'yelle Williamson and Olivia Elease Hardy share the title role in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." The national tour continues its Chicago debut at the James M. Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 23. Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

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

 
 
Posted2/14/2020 4:00 PM

"Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" -- ★ ★

Does every Top-40 pop artist of the past merit a jukebox musical these days?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It seems so, and the latest to hit Chicago is "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." This 2018 Broadway show about the iconic "Queen of Disco" is now making its local debut at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, and it's a strangely antiseptic experience despite the notorious hedonism of the era.

Bruce Sudano (Steven Grant Douglas) catches the eye of "Disco Donna" (Alex Hairston) during a demo recording session in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." The national tour is at the James M. Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 23.
Bruce Sudano (Steven Grant Douglas) catches the eye of "Disco Donna" (Alex Hairston) during a demo recording session in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." The national tour is at the James M. Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 23. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

"Summer" takes a biographical story approach similar to the far-better "Jersey Boys" to tie together a stream of Summer's controversial hits -- including the orgasmic "Love to Love You Baby" and the influential "I Feel Love," though "This Time I Know it's for Real" is surprisingly AWOL.

An abundance of narration and dramatized key life moments are deployed to showcase Summer's career and personal highs -- amid disturbing lows with abuse and depression -- before she died from lung cancer at 63 in 2012.

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To reflect her different life stages, the musical splits the title role among three actresses. There is the young "Duckling Donna" (Olivia Elease Hardy), the emerging pop star "Disco Donna" (Alex Hairston) and the sage "Diva Donna" (Dan'yelle Williamson), who all perform at some kind of posthumous concert for the woman born LaDonna Adrian Gaines.

Diva Donna (Dan'yelle Williamson), left, and Disco Donna (Alex Hairston), sing about legal battles in "She Works Hard for the Money" in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical."
Diva Donna (Dan'yelle Williamson), left, and Disco Donna (Alex Hairston), sing about legal battles in "She Works Hard for the Money" in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

This device gives the older Donnas the luxury of introspection, plus it takes the pressure off one actress carrying the entire show, though it's clear that Williamson and Hairston could have pulled it off with their dynamic vocals and strong stage presence. Williamson and Hardy also get to respectively play Summer's mother and her eldest daughter.

Unfortunately, this theatrical trifurcation isn't utilized to its fullest in the disappointing script by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff. They opt for a speedy overview that hopscotches back and forth through time while pausing at key moments as if to strike them from some sort of artistic checklist.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
"Diva Donna" (Dan'yelle Williamson), center, sings "The Queen is Back" in the biographical Broadway show "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 23.
"Diva Donna" (Dan'yelle Williamson), center, sings "The Queen is Back" in the biographical Broadway show "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 23. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Many high-stakes moments come off as afterthoughts, especially Summer's battles with men (John Gardiner as both the abusive German boyfriend Gunther and financially exploitative record executive Neil Bogart). Summer's career-stalling alienation of her gay fan base amid the AIDS pandemic is a dutifully hand-wringing inclusion, while her lasting romance with her second husband, Bruce Sudano (Steven Grant Douglas), gets short shrift.

Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo's slick "Summer" staging flows well, but seems impersonal with so much reliance on LED video screens by designers Robert Brill (sets) and Sean Nieuwenhuis (projections). Costumer Paul Tazewell builds in lots of androgyny for the ensemble's period outfits, while lighting designer Howell Binkley provides the necessary disco flash.

"Summer," however, feels like a squandered opportunity. Instead of comprehensively cramming everything in, a more intense dramatic focus on the disco era might have offered greater dramatic rewards.

• • •

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

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday, Feb. 23

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

Running time: About one hour 40 minutes without intermission

Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking

Rating: Contains drug use, mature themes and some violence; heavy use of strobe lights

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