The La Jolla Playhouse has a rich history of success and game changing shows. No wonder the theatre itself has a Tony Award. Even Broadway admires its artistry.
La Jolla’s own Christopher Ashley won a Tony Award this year for the musical “Come From Away,” which transferred to the Great White Way from La Jolla AND the Playhouse was also one of the original homes to the Tony winning Best Musical “Memphis.”
So can they ever top themselves? Can they even come close?
Well, the answer is yes. The hopefully Broadway-bound musical “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is one of the greatest musicals ever to come out of La Jolla and perhaps one of the most emotionally engrossing and foot tapping experiences I have ever had at the theatre.
The story of Donna Summer, reluctantly known to many as the Queen of Disco, but the show stresses in Summer’s words she is more than that. She was a prolific songwriter, painter, devout Christian and an icon to many – whether they are black, Christian or gay. Summer deservedly had her followers and all aspects of her life are explored through three glorious women who play Donna from young duckling to disco Donna to diva Donna.
Even if you didn’t know of Summer or her music, the show is a terrific master class on learning all about one of the greatest singers of all time.
First known for her sexy, breathy and sexual songs, most notably in her first mega-hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” Summer didn’t want to be pigeonholed as being a singer known simply for making love to the microphone, especially with her religious background.
The musical takes us on a journey through the life of Summer and all set to her songs – many of the tunes may have been inspired by situations from her past. After listening to some of the songs juxtaposed to the drama of Summer’s life, many of her popular tunes take on new meaning as you connect the dots between her music and her life experiences. “No More Tears,” “Stamp Your Feet” and “Dim All the Lights” all have new meaning as we learn more about Summer’s abusive first marriage and her battle with cancer.
There’s a wonderful ensemble cast that is mostly women playing both male and female roles. This androgynous choice is empowering to women. Sure the show is written by men and some of the men in Donna’s past take advantage of her, but the show makes a really strong statement having women play these parts, especially in today’s #MeToo climate.
The show reaches its greatest height when the three divas of Donna come and sing together. The power of their collective voices evoke goose bumps galore and they were likely able to reach the heaven’s and touch Summer herself.
The trio, which each have their own moments on stage representing Donna throughout her life, is lead by LaChanze, a Tony winner herself, who plays Donna towards the end of her life. Assured and confident, her Donna is fun and wise. Her voice is strong and powerful and she makes the character her own, using her own phraseology and tempo. She is not a Donna Summer impersonator; she embodies the strengths and powers of Donna but her own voice shines through.
The Disco Donna, Ariana DeBose, has the most fun with her role, showing Donna’s unwillingness to be a puppet in the music industry. It’s DeBose’s Donna that is on stage during her stormy first marriage and as her career takes off. It’s DeBose as a performer who allows her Donna to shine with star quality. And she proves here she’s an over-achiever.
The younger Donna, Storm Lever, is a beautiful mix of innocence and spunk, and is given some of the show’s hardest acting moments and she manages to make you laugh and break your heart in a matter of moments. She also doubles as Donna’s daughter, working alongside the Diva Donna, and makes us believe she is the two different characters.
La Jolla also got lucky with the return of Des McAnuff as director and co-book writer. He seemed retired from the Playhouse but I guess he knows good things come in threes and his two Tony Awards need a little sister. This could do it. His direction is tight and he uses a lot of multi-media to not only convey certain scenes quickly, but that gives the moving parts time to change on the stage. While Donna was a star from the 1970s-1990s, McAnuff’s direction is at millennial speed with everything moving fast and brisk. It’s also a great tribute to showcase some of Donna’s artwork during the show, teasing that she’s more than just a singer and songwriter but an artist on many levels.
His wonderful book of the show is also comprehensive which is hard to do in the show that is less than 2 hours. The book, co-written by Robert Cary and Colman Domingo, covers a lot of ground and connects it all to Donna songs without feeling forced.
While I don’t know who contributed what to the book, I do need to mention Colman Domingo. He is one of the most talented artists of our time. He’s an actor, singer, writer and director who has won acclaim and a Tony nomination (for “The Scottsboro Boys”) and has toured in his own one-man shows, and has had roles in such important films as “Selma,” “Birth of a Nation” and “Lee Daniel’s The Butler.” One would think “Summer” has kept him busy but he concurrently has the world premiere of “Lights Out” about Nat “King” Cole playing in Pennsylvania. He’s just the masterful person to lead any master class.
This “Summer” is so thrilling that, since it’s been extended again to Dec. 24, I am making a special trip to La Jolla just before Christmas to catch it again. Due to all of the buzz and the popular subject, it was hard to get tickets the first time around. So if you want to see it and want a great seat, there are still some great ones in the extended part of the show’s run. “Summer” is so free of flaws that have I was forced to be picky, I’d change the title of the show to “Last Dance: The Donna Summer Musical.”
For more information, go to www.lajollaplayhouse.org.