The Donna Summer Musical ‘packs a lot of star power but crackles along with a splintered storyline
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” kicked off Tuesday at Jackson Hall at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, spinning like a disco ball in a flashy, fractured tribute to the queen of disco herself.
“Summer” swirls around the stage in a feverishly chaotic but very danceable parade of events. Lasting one hour and 45 minutes without intermission, the show features 23 groovy, sensual and subversive songs by Donna Summer.
Although the numbers are well-integrated into moments in Summer’s life and full of jaw-dropping performances, the result is head-turning that bounces from scene to scene without a clear purpose.
Throughout the production, three actors spin in the limelight to portray Summer at three distinct life stages: “Duckling Donna”, “Disco Donna”, and “Diva Donna”.
The mature “Diva” Donna serves as the main narrator, reflecting on her life and interacting with her younger self in non-chronological flashes of memory.
Diva Donna, played by Brittny Smith with true superstar effervescence, kicks off “Summer” by leading a sizzling performance of “The Queen is Back.”
The number features a startling set of vocals from big-haired, sequin-clad women, who instantly immersed the audience in the disco groove. Smith led the pack, commanding the stage with her sultry, chic dance moves.
Diva Donna then takes her adoring fans — aka the public — back to the starting point of her career: the recordings of “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby.” Charis Gullage as young adult “Disco” Donna shows off her silky high notes, reminiscent of Summer’s ethereal vocals on the tracks.
Themes of misogyny are set, and audiences prepare to move forward in Summer’s fight against excessive sexualization. Instead, the story abruptly plunges further back in time, and the setting shifts from the recording studio to young “Duckling” Donna’s living room.
The petite but mighty Amahri Edwards-Jones perfectly portrayed the future queen of disco. Her tender and powerful rendition of “On My Honor” evoked Summer’s gospel roots and captured the singer’s first taste of stardom.
From there, the wheels of history creak and turn as things return to where they started, skimming the singer’s love life and skipping her rise to fame.
Audiences may begin to feel that the creative team has bitten off more than they can chew, unable to decide which aspects of Summer’s life deserve the most attention. A story arc is dropped for a patchwork of vignettes featuring trials of love, abuse, misogyny, sanity, and motherhood.
These snapshots arguably paint a more accurate picture of Summer’s life, choosing to see her as a complex human rather than a one-note icon. However, in an attempt to wrap it all up, the show glosses over crucial personal experiences that could have spoken to larger global and industry issues.
General statements on topics such as white men running the music industry rush from actors’ lips and fall into the abyss, never to be fleshed out or found.
Moments of high intensity arise without warning. For example, shortly after making it known that Summer has a boyfriend, a German named Gunther, he assaults her and gets arrested. As soon as it manifests, it is suffocated by the narrative as quickly as a flash.
Likewise, a scene depicting a suicide attempt feels like a jarring attempt to weave into a loose thread – one created through a brief comment about “blue pills” early in the series. Trauma strikes like lightning with no thunderstorm, no ominous dark clouds to let us know it’s coming.
Despite the narrative chaos, the show is undeniably interesting and full of fun moments. It features luxurious sets, a phenomenal cast, and of course, a killer track list, that is, if you’re a disco buff.
Fans of Donna Summer will no doubt enjoy the ride, swaying their shoulders to the soundtrack and soaking up glam 1970s nostalgia, complete with bell bottoms, wide collars, smoke and LED lights.
A disco ball descends for the show’s final two numbers, “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” – hits that inspired the fan-filled audience to get up and dance on Tuesday night.
So if you like to party and can handle the ups and downs of this groundbreaking icon’s life, get your dancing shoes on this weekend.
On the contrary, it’s entertaining and it pays tribute to a black woman who paved the way for many people in the music industry, which is well worth the effort.
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” runs at TPAC through Sunday, March 27.
Belmont students can apply promo code “BRUINS” prior to ticket selection to access a student discount.
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” was directed by Lauren L. Sobon.
PHOTO: “Hot Stuff” featuring Disco Donna (Charis Gullage, center) and the “Summer” ensemble. Nick Gould
This review was written by Meagan Irby.
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