“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” opens with all the flair and sparkles one would expect from the queen of disco. From the moment she steps on the stage, Brittny Smith (as Diva Donna) shines as brightly as her jaw-dropping blue gown. Backed by dancers in equally fabulous costumes, Smith combines rich, powerful vocals and smart delivery in her opening number “The Queen is Back.”
Starting at the peak of Donna Summer’s career, Diva Donna acts as narrator throughout this biographical production (directed by Lauren L. Sobon), as she tells the story of Summer’s life, set to the tune of her greatest hits. Disco Donna (representing Summer as a young adult) comes next, with Charis Gullage effortlessly telling the story of Summer’s early career and rise to fame. As we watch Summer transform from a soft and gentle church singer into the strong and sexy queen of disco, the plot points of her life flow fast and furious as the production briefly touches on the major moments of her career.
While this breakneck pace does help keep audiences engaged, you definitely need to be paying attention to understand the time jumps.
But even with Smith and Gullage’s enviable talent and the fast-paced plot progression, it still feels like something is missing from the production. Visually, the audience is watching beautifully choreographed dance numbers, thanks to choreographer Natalie Caruncho. Each musical number is upbeat, but the energy doesn’t quite fill the room. For as much energy as the Donnas put into their performance, the ensemble behind them is sort of, well, deadpanned even as they hit the snappy choreography.
Thankfully, Duckling Donna (Amahri Edwards-Jones) is just as dazzling as her older counterparts, and hits her lovely high notes with ease in her introductory number “On My Honor.”
As Summer grows in confidence, she begins to resent her “queen of disco” reputation. In an attempt to prove she really can sing, Disco Donna takes the lead and Gullage finally gets the big belt moment she deserves in her number “MacArthur Park.” When combined with the harmonies of the other two Donnas, the effect is pure magic.
Unfortunately, there are a few moments of plot that are not. While admittedly important to the story of her life, the trials and struggles Summer endured are a bit slow when compared to the beginning of the production. Not bad by any means, but not as entertaining either (although thankfully much more linear than the first chunk of the production). Fortunately, this middle bit is where we meet Summer’s hunky husband Bruce Sudano (John Guaragna), who’s chemistry with both Gullage (and later Smith) is picture perfect.
The rest of the musical is chock-full of Summer’s greatest hits, like “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money” (which still rings true as a kick butt feminist anthem today), and “Last Dance,” all performed with a passionate fire, thanks to the three leading ladies.
From the moment the curtain goes up to the last dance (see what I did there?), “Summer” is a fairly accurate representation of Summer’s life, and even addresses her controversy in the mid-1980s surrounding claims of making anti-gay comments.
Costume designer Paul Tazewell’s enviable costumes may just be worth the price of admission alone as the Donnas are dressed head to toe in rich royal blues and an endless array of sequins that are (almost) fabulous enough to make me wish disco fashion would make a comeback. On that note though, my deepest apologies to Wig and Hair Designer Brandon T. Miller, but some of the wigs in the production are, shall we say, not up to snuff? I normally wouldn’t comment on something so trivial, but they were distracting. On more than one occasion.
Missing pizazz aside, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is still good fun. Admittedly, much more fun for those familiar with Summer's music, but that is by no means a requirement to be entertained.
The production runs at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore through February 20, 2022, and tickets can be purchased here. The production runs 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Please note that this production contains themes and language that may be unsuitable for young audiences.
All photos provided by the Hippodrome Theatre.