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REVIEW: The All-Too Brief Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (Ordway)

The cast of the national touring company of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Originally scheduled to run through January 2, the show’s remaining performances at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul, MN have been cancelled due to COVID-19.

With many touring shows, you can blink and miss them. For Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which played at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, things were even more transient. Before the show could complete half its run, COVID-19 cases forced the show to close and the touring company to quarantine.

Wondering what you missed? Donna Summer was known as the “Queen of Disco” for good reason: she belted out one disco hit after another, while updating her style to the tune of 42 (!) Top 40 hits over several decades. I myself was never much into disco when I was a young adult, but she had two songs that impressed me: her rendition of “MacArthur Park” and “She Works Hard for her Money.” Her music video for the latter song was among the best I ever viewed on MTV. 

With a rich trove of musical hits and some personal dramas, Summer’s life is perfect for a jukebox musical. The resulting show, under the direction of Lauren L. Sobon, has a dazzling musical score and strong musical performances. However, the show’s book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff is disjointed, confusing, and bereft of substance.

The cast of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

The story is narrated by three versions of Summer: the middle-aged Diva Donna (Brittny Smith), the early Disco Donna (Charis Gullage), and the youngster Duckling Donna (Amahri Edwards-Johes). All three actors bring the vocal chops needed for Summer’s tunes, and the trio blends well on stage in both singing and acting scenes.

The musical score consists of songs written by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and others. It’s also sonically crammed, with 23 of Summer’s hits. One of the dance movements that does shine is “She Works Hard for Her Money” and is one of the few songs that advance the story. (A more expeditious selection might have helped make more space for a more interesting script.) While the singers and dancers do stunning work, the choreography by Natalie Caruncho becomes repetitious over the course of so many disparate songs. While the songs and events shown do not unfold in chronological order, this is not so much a problem as the script’s failure to give adequate facts or delve into how Summer’s life experiences influenced her music. Fortunately, the talented band members Erika R. Garmez, Amy Liu, Nicolas Johnson, Jared Cannata, and Jesse-Ray Leich maintain an upbeat rhythm with the music that moves the show better than the book. 

The result does not give a great understanding of Donna Summer’s biography – more a few crib notes. The facts I gleaned in very quick and incomplete fashion is that Summer started her career touring in a production of Hair in Germany in the 1970s. She married a German, had a child, became divorced, and later became involved with another European who was physically abusive. Ultimately, she found the right man and had more children. She also thought about suicide, had a brief drug addiction problem and she found religion again even though the audience never new she lost it. She cut her first record with an Italian producer, became a big disco star, sued her record company, and then signed with a better record company. This sounds like it should be great drama, but in Summer, everything comes at you so fast that I had to consult Wikipedia after the show to make sense of it.

To be a great juke box musical there is a need for audience to have some understanding of the artist even if the biography is incomplete. The audience was clearly enthralled with the show’s music, but I left the show feeling I had no connection with or understanding of Summer. That is a shame.

Further performances of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical have been cancelled due to COVID-19.

Bev Wolfe