The touring production of ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’ is hot stuff


Jukebox Musicals began as movies in 1942 with Yankee Doodle Dandy which featured the songs of George M. Cohan. It was an attempt by Hollywood to cash in on the popularity of various composers and singing sensations. Taking this lead, Broadway began their own brand of live performance song collections in the 70s and the genre has gained popularity with each ensuing year.

Currently on stage in the Connor Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio is Summer: The Donna Summer Musical directed by Des McAnuff with book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff.

What makes this musical unique is that you get three Donnas for the price of one. There is Duckling (young) Donna (Olivia Elease Hardy), Disco Donna (Alex Hairston) and Diva Donna (Dan’yelle Williamson). Each of these individual ladies have extraordinary voices but when you combine the three into a harmonic trio...Oh my goodness!

Donna Summer’s story is one of triumph over tragedy. Born December 31, 1948 LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, Massachusetts her singing debut was at ten years old when she replaced a no show vocalist at her church. Her life as a church singer was not all roses as in her teens she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the church’s minister which began a pattern of bad decisions concerning men both romantically and professionally.

In 1967, just two weeks shy of her high school graduation, she moved to New York City joining the blues rock band, Crow. When the band folded she managed to get the part of Sheila in the German tour of the rock musical Hair. While touring in Germany she married Helmuth Sommer in 1973 which resulted in the birth of her daughter Mimi, her new surname (which later became Summer due to a misprint on a record label) and her divorce in 1976.

She became fluent in German and later moved to Vienna, Austria where she recorded her first single and was noticed by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte which led to a deal with Groovy records in Europe and eventually Casablanca records in the United States that released “Love to Love You Baby” that in 1975 became an instant hit.

Speaking of that, the show playfully recreates the recording session where Disco Donna laid on the floor of the studio while recording "Love to Love You Baby" and had the microphone lowered down to her telling the recording staff to “turn around and don’t look at me.” She then proceeded to “sing” the song complete with orgasmic vocal accompaniment.It made for an interesting part of the show.

Through the twenty three songs in the show, Donna’s ups and downs are unfolded through her personal music that dealt with her battles with abusive men, shady record producers, drug addiction and lastly her fight against depression and battle with cancer. At the same time it shows her strong family ties, strong religious views, her writing and performing talents, her paintings and her very successful marriage to Bruce Sudano.

The cast is exceptional throughout with strong support from the ensemble. There are so many “WOW” moments they are too numerous to mention. The five piece orchestra consisting of conductor Amanda Morton on keyboard, associate conductor Lisa LeMay on keyboard, Makeena Lee Brick on keyboard, Larry Esparza on guitar and Jesse-Ray Leich on drums fills the huge Connor Palace with sound from corner to corner. Robert Brill’s scenic design is disco appropriate complete with a huge disco ball and when combined with Howell Binkley’s lighting puts everyone in a disco party mood. Gareth Owen’s sound design manages to coax the very most out of the theater’s sound system and Paul Tazewell’s costuming is simply stunning.

For those of us who came of age during the time of multi tiered dance clubs, disco music and garish dress this show is a delightful blast from the past (emphasis on the blast). You will find yourself dancing to the beat in your seats. Its party time!

Summer: the Donna Summer Musical runs through October 27, 2019 in the Connor Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square. For tickets and information go to www.playhousesquare.org, call (216) 241-6000 or stop by the Playhouse Square Ticket Office located in the outer lobby of the State Theatre.

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.