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SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical - The Concert of a Lifetime

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By Zach Freeman

“I’m gonna make sure that every note hits all of you,” purred Brittny Smith in the opening minutes of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, (playing through May 1 at the expansive Winspear Opera House in Dallas as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series). And on Tuesday night Smith, as one of the three incarnations of the titular Queen of Disco, held to that promise all the way to the last notes of “Last Dance,” when the audience got to their feet to sing and dance along, dancing and clapping through the curtain call.

The pre-show lobby was bustling with stylishly dressed audience members snapping selfies in front of the numerous “Summer”-themed backdrops, waiting in line at the bar and eying the glittery show merchandise – shirts, mugs and even a sunglasses case emblazoned with the words “Hot Stuff.” In the theater, the purples, blues and pinks of the retracted LEDs of the Moody Foundation Chandelier seemed to wink at the show’s bright color schema.

“Summer,” a jukebox musical that stacks 23 of the legendary Donna Summer’s biggest hits (and some lesser known deep cuts for the true die-hards) into an intermissionless 100 minute whirlwind recounting of her life (book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff), splits Donna duty between three capable and captivating leads in a fast-paced, musically-driven show that winningly captures the ever-evolving essence of Donna Summer, from bright-eyed belter Duckling Donna (Amahri Edwards-Jones) to eager but overworked Disco Donna (Charis Gullage) to commanding and world-weary Diva Donna (Smith).

Whether it’s the ethereal flow of songs like “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby,” the voluminous vocals of “MacArthur Park” and “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” or the epic pulsing danceability of hits like “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Hot Stuff,” the three leads delivered individual performances that charmed on their own but managed to come together for a collective whole that granted both celebration and emotional heft to Summer proclaiming near the end of the show, “I’ve lived a dozen lives.”

“Play each show as if it’s your last and one day you’ll be right,” Smith remarked at the start of the show, after an opening song (“The Queen is Back”) where ensemble members portrayed a shimmering, dancing, all-female band in white and silver that sets the stage for a glowing, vocalizing Donna Summer to appear center stage in a glittering blue dress. “A modest opening, don’t you think?” she smirked.

In many ways the set (Robert Andrew Kovach) and lighting (Russell A. Thompson) design are surprisingly modest for such a wide-ranging show, allowing the music and the performers to take centerstage in “a world of mystery and androgyny,” with some large set pieces (notably, an all-white grand piano) sliding in and out and lights that mostly alternate between highlighting one of the Donnas and flashing on the full ensemble. Projection design by Chris McCleary provides a secondary set, illuminating the various locations with relevant and eye-catching backdrops ranging from windows to reverberating lights to some of Summer’s original artwork.

The story is framed early on as “the concert of a lifetime,” and that’s mostly an accurate summation of the show’s somewhat episodic structure as it goes (mostly linearly) through Summer’s tumultuous and accomplished life, as well as her transformation from “the very private Donna Gaines” to “the very public Donna Summer.” Often a few lines will instigate a transition from one song to the next (“I feel like I’m on top of the world,” says Disco Donna. “Great, now try keeping your balance,” replies Diva Donna).

And while there’s an argument to be made that some life events are sped through with this treatment, it feels like the right choice, and director Lauren L. Sobon allows the songs that Summer wrote and performed in her lifetime to be the true stars of the show. Difficult and painful subjects like sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse, potential suicide attempts, a cancer diagnosis and a protracted legal battle with her record label Casablanca are all addressed in shorthand, giving the audience a lightning tour of the lived experience of a music industry hero.

“And I’m going to heaven by and by / ‘cause I already been through hell,” sings Donna Summer in “I Believe in Jesus” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” gives the audience a much clearer picture of exactly what she was referring to. The songs flow seamlessly, the dancing (choreographed by Natalie Caruncho) is tight and supportive of the music, and the dramatic moments connect without being dwelled on.

In short, this touring show pulses with life and easily connects with the multiple levels of seating in the Winspear Opera House, with accomplished vocalists sending Summer’s soaring melodies out to fill the space. Crucially for those looking to bring friends, familiarity with Summer’s life or extensive catalog isn’t a necessary prerequisite for enjoying this show, but it never hurts to give Summer a listen (or, more likely than not, a relisten). Knowing the original music allows for an even greater appreciation for the arrangement choices here and makes the depiction of Summer’s life more revelatory. And when the inevitable giant disco ball finally drops for “Hot Stuff,” giving way to a full-on disco dance scene, you’ll want to have your own moves ready to go.

Zach Freeman is a freelance culture writer living in DFW.

Information & Tickets for SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical