– By Cate Marquis –
There was no more reviled yet wildly popular music than disco, the late 1970s dance music craze, laying the groundwork for club music in decades to come. And the undisputed Queen of Disco was Donna Summer, who had a string of hits at the height of disco’s era. Rock fans hated disco’s repetitive, mechanical beats and electronic-heavy sound but fans embraced it – and Donna Summer.
SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL, which plays the Fox Theater through January, begins by acknowledging this history while reminding fans of disco why the music was so popular as well as maligned. Disco still makes many people cringe but, frankly, this show not for them. It is for the fans, an enthusiatic crowd of which filled the Fox Theater on the show’s opening night on Jan. 15. They were clearly there to celebrate, and remember, the incesssant beat and steamy lyrics of dance-driven disco., and the Queen of Disco.
The musical opened with Diva Donna (Dan’yelle Williamson), the self-assured, mature Donna Summer, looking back on her career and life. The show takes a clever approach, with three performers portraying Summer at various ages. Disco Donna (Alex Hairston) is the Queen of Disco at the height of the disco era, while young Duckling Donna (Olivia Elease Hardy) – as in the ugly duckling that becomes a swan – is the shy, church-going girl who made the unlikely transformation into a performer noted for her steamy songs.
This musical is heavy on performance, which is the right choice, as it tells Summer’s story, which keeps the show energetic and moving. This show honoring the disco queen is packed with her hits, interspersed with its biographical tale. Keeping to the focus on performance gives the show energy, and kept fans on their feet as they listened to their favorites
The story is surprising, a girl from a strict but loving church-going family in Boston who makes a meterioc leap into fame. Determined to be a singer, young Donna begins skipping school to audition for shows, first locally then in New York, unbeknowst to her parents. Then she gets a part in a musical. She doesn’t know what is it about but it is called “Hair” and she’s in the touring company going to Germany. Germany changes everything, with a quick marriage to German Helmuth Sommer (Jay Garcia), a baby and German music producer who wants her to record a song for the new musical style disco.
An immediate hit, Donna shoots to fame. Unlike other disco stars, Donna writes her own music and can actually sing. The show presents her string of hits as we follow her story. The older Diva Donna acts as a kind of narrator, as we bounce back to her childhood, her wild ride as disco queen, and finally, a settled life as a diva branching out into other musical forms.
The many musical numbers are presented in dazzling style, with each of the Donnas belting out those hits with style and power. The stage is often dominated by a backdrop photo of the real Donna Summer, or the spinning mirrored ball that was a signature item of the era. The backup dancers add an interesting touch, with female dancers in skimpy sequined outfits but also other female dancers dressed as dapper men, likely a reference to the gender-bending style of the era, and possibly a nod to the rising feminist movement. Disco Donna even makes a few references to feminism, and her troubles with men.
Besides the inclusion of so many of her hits, another strength of this show is that is does not overstay its welcome, as some other star biography musicals do. SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL runs a quick hour and a half, with no intermission, but packs in everything, in a thoughtful, well-structured story. The tale of the star’s too-brief life has satisfying arc, ending on a life-affirming note. Even if one is not a fan of the music, the person presented seems admirable.
SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL delivers everything disco and Donna Summer fans might want, in a high-energy, hit-filled and satisfying package. It runs through January 26 at the Fabulous Fox Theater.
© Cate Marquis