If you’re looking for an upbeat, danceable production to enjoy during these dark February nights, the Durham Performing Arts Center has a prescription for you: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, presented as part of DPAC‘s WRAL Greatest Hits of Broadway Series. No, it’s not June-July-August-Summer, but Donna Summer, who carved a lane for herself in music as the Queen of Disco.
Billed as “Broadway’s Ultimate Disco Dance Party,” the musical is much more than that. Summer is the story of a life lived on stage, with the most fabulous dance music of the century. It’s impossible to sit in your seat when Summer is on stage!
Robert Brill’s sets are minimal, at best; and that doesn’t matter, because this show is all about the music. Summer is a concert — an entire career retrospective — that takes three versions of Donna Summer to sing, as well as narrate, her life’s music. Those three Donnas are all stellar and as talented as the Queen herself. Diva Donna tells the story and sings some of the later songs in Summer’s decades-long career; Disco Donna sings the mid-career hits, when Donna dominated song charts; and Duckling Donna is the child who grew up singing in church.
The show starts a bit shakily, with an opening number that feels poorly choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Diva Donna, played by Dan’yelle Williamson, tells the audience that this is “the concert of a lifetime.” In a rich, deep, and strong voice, she launches into a baseline of musical narrative. Williamson is better on the lower registers than on the soaring soprano notes that Summer sang like no one else; but that doesn’t matter, because Williamson is the mainstay of the production, acting as both Diva Donna, as well as Donna’s mother, Mary Gaines.
The Donna who brings the voice alive, however, is Disco Donna, played by Alex Hairston, a Broadway veteran who nails Donna’s songs so well that the audience often gasps. When she sings “Love to Love You, Baby,” the epic growl and breathiness that Summer made her trademark is in full force. At that point in her career, Donna had starred onstage in Hair, released her music in Europe, and was about to become a major force in the American music industry.
Young Donna, the child who grew up in Boston with strict parents who immersed their children in church, is played by Olivia Elease Hardy. A rising senior in Musical Theatre at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Hardy has a colorful voice that not only sounds like a young Donna, but competes effectively with the two adult Donnas.
What is written between the lines in this “concert” is Donna’s personal story. The life in church was not all pure; she endured sexual abuse for five years. She was beaten up by a former lover. And she clawed her way to the top: a true rags-to-riches story. It’s that personal story that we’d like to see more of, because it’s such a different tale from the one that she built with her danceable music.
Summer’s songs — sensual and strong — often embody messages that resonate today. “She Works Hard for the Money” is about those women who might work a couple of part-time jobs while raising their families. “Enough Is Enough” resonates with those in the #MeToo movement. “Black Boys/White Boys” talks about interracial relationships. “Last Dance” details what it’s like to be looking for love as the bar closes down.
Summer is a concert, but it’s also a celebration of Donna Summer’s life, a life that ended too soon in 2012, when she passed away of lung disease. The Disco scene would have been nothing without Donna, but it’ll never die as long as her music still lives.
Go, hear Summer. “Dim All the Lights” and let your “Hot Stuff” be what makes you “Stamp Your Feet.”
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 26th Raleigh, NC Chatham Life & Style review by Erim Akpan, who awarded the show 4.5 stars out of 5: https://chathamlifeandstyle.com/features-%26-reviews/f/theatre-review-a-hot-%E2%80%9Csummer%E2%80%9D-night-with-the-queen-of-disco; Feb. 26th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2020/02/dpacs-production-of-summer-the-donna-summer-musical-entertains-and-empowers/; Feb. 22nd Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Interview with Steven Grant Douglas, conducted by Nicole Ackman: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Steven-Grant-Douglas-of-the-SUMMER-THE-DONNA-SUMMER-MUSICAL-National-Tour-20200222; Feb. 20th Cary, NC RDU on Stage interview with Olivia Elease Hardy, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/2020/02/20/feature-summer-duckling-olivia-elease-hardy-is-going-places/; and Feb. 20th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com review by “Out and About” editor Kathy Hanrahan for “What’s on Tap”: https://www.wral.com/elon-grad-to-take-the-stage-in-donna-summer-musical/18963616/.
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 and 27, 8 p.m. Feb. 28, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 29, and 1 and 7 p.m. March 1 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $30-$75, plus taxes and fees. Click here to enter the digital lottery for $30 tickets.
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/369510/2599048.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
SHOW: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/summer-the-donna-summer-musical and https://www.facebook.com/events/2174746802644497/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCObsFQeJvY5BQI6DQJgsKhQ.
DPAC NEWS RELEASES: https://lottery.broadwaydirect.com/show/summer-durham/ and https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/summer-the-donna-summer-musical-announces-dpac-premiere-february-25-march-1-2020.
DPAC‘S “WRAL GREATEST HITS OF BROADWAY” SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/category/broadway.
THE TOUR: https://thedonnasummermusical.com/, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/summer-522223, https://www.facebook.com/DonnaSummerBway/, https://www.instagram.com/donnasummerbway/, https://twitter.com/DonnaSummerBway, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCObsFQeJvY5BQI6DQJgsKhQ.
TOUR CAST & TOUR CREATIVE TEAM: https://thedonnasummermusical.com/bios/.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://www.instagram.com/dpacnc/, https://twitter.com/DPAC, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center, and https://www.youtube.com/user/DPACLive.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29th, performance. Guests with a disabilities can find more information by clicking DPAC’s accessibility page.
Donna Summer (Brookline, MA-born singer-songwriter and “Queen of Disco,” nee LaDonna Adrian Gaines, 1948-2012): http://donnasummer.com/ (official website), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Donna-Summer (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/donna-summer-84124 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0838595/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/OfficialDonnaSummer (Facebook page), https://www.instagram.com/officialdonnasummer/ (Instagram page), https://twitter.com/OAODonnaSummer (Twitter page), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donna_Summer (Wikipedia), and https://www.youtube.com/user/RealDonnaSummer (YouTube page).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.