The National Tour of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical arrived in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater and runs through November 24th. Thanks in large part to its stellar cast, a palpable Summer magic filled the air.
Summer’s death at age 63 in 2012 sent shockwaves through the gay community and the world at large upon news of her succumbing to lung cancer. Summer joins the ranks of celebrities in the “gone too soon” club, leaving behind a legacy immortalized in an indelible catalogue of hits that lay credible claim to her title as the Queen of Disco. Led by a cast of not one or two, but three women portraying Summer at different stages of her life, this show is Donna Summer in surround-sound.
Toot toot, Beep Beep
It may not be Cole Porter, but the immediately recognizable refrain from Summer’s smash “Bad Girls” is an unforgettable earworm. For those who came of age during the glory days of disco, this jukebox musical is a welcome addition to the genre, allowing Baby Boomers and Millennials alike to relive indelible hits like “I Feel Love,” “Love to Love You, Baby,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and many more.
While no one can ever replicate the qualities that made Ms. Summer and her voice so singular, the cast assembled in this national tour deliver some high-octane entertainment and do her legacy proud. At the top of that list: Dan’yelle Williamson, who plays Summer in the long season of her greatest triumphs. Alex Hairston brings some heat as Donna in her late teens and early 20s as the young vocalist was first coming into her own. Last but certainly not least is Olivia Elease Hardy representing Young Donna in her pre-teens. Hardy’s stunning vocals make her one to watch. To be fair, each actress brings their own unique gifts to the party here, proving the adage that the sum(mer) of the parts is greater than the whole.
Love to Love
Beyond the thrill of watching and hearing these hits come to life, the show provides an intimate look at how LaDonna Adrian Gaines (Summer’s given name) became a Grammy-winning superstar. The writers do an admirable job of synthesizing aspects from her humble Christian upbringing with her decision to leave home and pursue the showbiz dreams that led to her travels abroad.
While in Munich, Gaines met and married Helmuth Sommer with whom she had her first child. But it was Neil Bogart, then head of Casablanca Records who persuaded her to come back to United States and ride the wave of success that became her destiny. Steven Grant Douglas turns in a solid performance as Bruce Sudano, Summer’s bass player and eventual love interest. Summer went on to have two children with Sudano with whom she remained married until her passing.
While much of the focus is on Summer’s music and milestones, the writers deserve additional kudos for addressing the backlash Summer experienced after a statement she made once disco died and AIDS appeared. Many in the gay community felt her comments about homosexuality and the Bible were a slap in the face to those who figured so prominently among her fan base from the very start.
The offending statement, printed in 1983, was an oft-quoted dog whistle to the religious right about how God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. The firestorm was fueled by rumors that she made even more incendiary comments about AIDS being divine retribution. Being in the days before social media, Summer wrote a letter to ACT UP in 1989, denying the more damning allegations in order to clear the air and set the record straight. She went on to apologize for any unintended pain she may have caused, but for many it cast a pall over what many presumed would be her advocacy of LGBTQ rights.
In the years since Summer’s death, we’ve had a chance to get some distance and perhaps put things in perspective. As most now know, religious dogma can cloud the judgment of otherwise well-intentioned people and cause real damage. It’s important to hold people accountable — especially those with a platform — but it’s also important to put things into context and accept apologies when they are sincere and use these flashpoints as opportunities to learn, grow and evolve.
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Last modified: November 22, 2019