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Summer at the Playhouse

The La Jolla Playhouse wants the audience to say, “I Feel Love” towards the ‘Hot Stuff” that is the new Donna Summer jukebox musical SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL.  With a long list of hit songs “On The Radio”, there is plenty of material to work with for this show (and review, but “Enough is Enough” and I’ll stop).

Ariana DeBose (center) as “Disco Donna” with the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL; photo by Kevin Berne

Summer certainly had the vocal pipes, beloved music, and the dramatic life to garner a musical of her life story. This show has a solid foundation to work from in the three women portraying the Queen of Disco. It begins with LaChanze as “Diva Donna”, who is looking back and trying to put together the whole picture of her life, and she says, “I just see fragments…but tonight I want to put it all together”.

From there the show proceeds by jumping forward and backward through time, from singing in her church choir as a kid, to her relentless work schedule as she climbs the disco charts with hit after hit.

Tony Winner LaChanze is a powerful and confident Donna, bringing all the vocal and star power this “Diva Donna” deserves. Ariana DeBose as “Disco Donna” is high energy, daring, and has a lovely voice and presence. Storm Lever as “Duckling Donna” brings Donna’s youthful enthusiasm and vulnerability to life. When all three are singing together they could potentially blow the roof off the theatre.

The sets by Robert Brill are beautiful, giving a dynamic canvas for the show, the projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis, and the costumes by Paul Tazewell to play upon. Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, the show is high energy and uses all of the stage as much as it can.

It’s the story that needs editing and better pacing. Like a scene where Donna is learning how to drive a manual transmission, this show is full of stops and starts that impede its forward motion.  Summer’s life is so much richer than what is showcased here; which seems to focus mostly on the disco era music and all of the misfortunes in her life with minimal details. So much more than just the “Disco Queen” this show mines the bad for the drama instead of looking into a few more of her milestone moments beyond 1983.

A powerhouse number is LaChanze as Diva Donna singing “She Works Hard for the Money”, while DeBose as Disco Donna is going through legal channels to get control of her career and her money. With DeBose spinning and dancing, LaChanze belting, and the cast all on stage it is a dynamic and energetic number. But when it was over, the people sitting next to and in front of my seats looked around and asked each other “Did she get her money?”

Another abrupt gear change was the shoe horned in reference to a controversial remark she made at a concert (“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) when she is trying to get the men in her audience to quiet down. They don’t show the incident, but she explains a remark she made at a concert, and how badly she feels about it. Having no prior knowledge of this incident, and nothing in the show that seemingly leads up to this event, makes her explanation and apology feel even more confusing, out of context, and disingenuous.

Like every good party, this show ends with the quintessential closer “Last Dance” to send the audience out on a high note. It almost works, but with the stilted momentum this show never truly reaches the pinnacle that it could with a slightly more coherent book.

The idea of Summer’s life as seen through fragments could be a great one to tell her story.  Unfortunately, the story and this show are still too fragmented to let Donna Summer’s facets shine the way they can.

SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL is playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through December 24th.  For tickets and show time information go to

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