Looking for some Hot Stuff? Heaven Knows you will Stomp Your Feet after they Dim All the Lights as Bad Girls will give you Unconditional Love singing songs you already heard On the Radio, and to be sure, it won’t be the Last Dance.
These favorites and lots more associated with the “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer come to life under the disco ball of Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre with the touring production of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical as part of its Broadway Series.
The Hippodrome had presented several exceptional jukebox musicals in the recent past including MammaMia!, Jersey Boys, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Rock of Ages, and The Bodyguard. Summer is no exception with its incredible song catalogue, outstanding performers, and brilliant lighting design and effects that enhance the production.
The musical features a book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff and music and lyrics by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte, Paul Jabara, and others. It is based on the life of Summer who was originally from Boston and began in a gospel choir before becoming arguably the most popular diva during the disco era of the seventies and early eighties. A whopping 42 of Donna Summer’s singles made it to the Billboard Hot 100 list with 14 finding its place in their Top 10. And in the period from 1975 to 1984, Summer had a Top 10 hit in each year.
Although Summer: The Donna Summer Musical received two Tony Award and three Drama League Award nominations in 2018, it had a brief stint on Broadway in which it closed after 289 performances. The show began its tour in 2019. As evident by the warm reaction by Hippodrome audience, there continues to be a longing for disco music especially by those who were around then. The late Donna Summer along with the Bee Gees embodied that sound as much as any from the genre.
"...incredible song catalogue, outstanding performers, and brilliant lighting design and effects..."
To be clear, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is not a concert though 23 of her songs are included in a tight 100-minute production under the meticulous direction of Lauren L. Sobon and the excellent five-piece band conducted by Erika R. Gamez.
Summer’s hits are presented through a musical biography representing three stages of her life: Duckling Donna in her pre-teens, Disco Donna in her late teens and early 20’s, and climaxing with Diva Donna in her 50’s when she was on top of the proverbial disco ball. But the songs performed are not in chronological order of their release but rather tied to a particular event in Summer’s life.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, Summer’s life’s story was a rollercoaster of highs and lows even with her incredible professional success. Through dramatic dialogue and clever quips, we meet the folks who were part of that rollercoaster.
From her parents to producers, to studio execs, musicians, agents, lawyers, lovers, children and her husband, we get to know Donna Summer as the person behind the mic and what she endured through her journey that ended in 2012 at the age of 64 from lung cancer. Brittny Smith, who plays Diva Donna to perfection, characterizes Summer’s life aptly by confessing, “Sometimes I feel like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Other times I just feel like Judy Garland.”
Ms. Smith, armed with a glorious voice, also provides some narration and commentary as the story moves from one phase of Summer’s life to another. She is particularly strong in the memorable “I Feel Love” and the production numbers “Stamp Your Feet” and “MacArthur Park” as well as in several other group songs.
Also superb in her vocals is Charis Gullage as Disco Donna. As the “Donna” during the height of her career, Ms. Gullage performs in the majority of the songs. Her voice is so good that she can cut an album without any worry. “Love to Love You Baby,” “Heaven Knows,” “Dim All the Lights” and “Hot Stuff” are examples where Ms. Gullage shines.
Amahri Edwards-Jones as young Duckling Donna ably solos in “On My Honor” and participates in several group numbers.
|The 3 Donnas: Charis Gullage, Brittny Smith and Amahri Edwards-Jones|
Other members of the cast include Robert Ayala, Emilee Theno, David Tanciar, Christopher Lewis, Aubrey Young (performs in “Dim All the Lights”), Francisco Risso, Porter Lee Anderson III, Meridien Terrell, Ciara Jones, Lamont Whitaker, Mia Davidson, Sy Chounchaisit, Layla Brent-Tomkins, and Lily Kren. As Summer’s husband Bruce Sudano, John Guaragna, performs well in “Heaven Knows” and “I Love You.” The talented Ensemble backs up the leads splendidly.
Adding vitality to the hue-rich production is the superb lighting designed by Russell A. Thompson, the fabulous costumes designed by Paul Tazewell and the wig and hair design by Brandon T. Miller. Also augmenting the production visuals is the neat projection screen designed by Chris McCleary containing myriad colorful images and graphics forming the backdrop to the set.
Folks who remember the disco era certainly will enjoy the music presented in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. For my part, as I listened to the wonderful performers bringing back those memories of the disco era, I tried to recall where I was when I first heard the song played on the radio or where I danced to the beats. I’m sure I was not alone.
This is a top-notch production that should not be missed even if you are too young to have worn bell bottoms, a groovy jumpsuit, go-go boots or had danced to the vibes from Donna Summer’s music.
Running time. One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical plays through February 20 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or visit here.
Photos: Denise Trupe