The biographical jukebox musical, which tell the life story of a famous musical artist or group using their well-known songs as a score, has become a relatively popular mini-genre in recent years. However, it isn’t actually one that I have terribly much experience with, since the aura of conventionality surrounding these shows isn’t typically one that attracts me. In fact, prior to getting invited to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which is currently playing at the Kravis Center after its initial winter run was delayed due to the Omicron outbreak, I probably wouldn’t have even recognized the name Donna Summer, despite her status as an incredibly influential artist whose hits landed her the moniker “disco queen.”
However, going in without much background knowledge and without many expectations actually didn’t seem to be a hindrance when it came to this fast-paced disco adventure. Though I wasn’t terribly familiar with her music either, a few of her songs were well-known enough that they were familiar to me nonetheless, and not having much of a framework to draw from allowed me to be surprised by the twists and turns of the plot rather than seeing it as a familiar story retread.
And that plot was, actually, one more substantial and affecting than one might initially expect from a show that seems to be mostly aiming to give nostalgic boomers a good time. Before Donna Summer can reach her fated success, she must contend with parents who do not support her dreams, endure abuse by trusted adults as a child and by partners as a young woman, and learn to stand up for herself against exploitative record labels eager to take her for everything she’s worth.
However, poor fight choreography did somewhat dampen the effect of what would have been an otherwise terrifying scene exploring that abuse, and some of when certain information was revealed during the time-jumping storytelling also may have made for a less effective overall narrative.
But while The Donna Summer Musical it’s no Gone With The Wind, it does effectively showcase an inspirational journey, if one that really only offers us Donna’s perspective as opposed to fleshing out any of its supporting characters, which mutes the emotional impact of certain moments related to Summer’s relationships with them.
Then again, too, there’s also only so much fleshing out that you have time for when you’re scrambling to cram in a full 23 songs into a little over 100 minutes. After all, when it comes to a jukebox musical, the music tends to be the real star of the show, and this element of The Donna Summer Musical certainly didn’t disappoint either.
The play also took the unique step of splitting up its main character into a role played by three different actresses, who represent Summer at different ages, making for a more dynamic story and allowing not one but three talented performers the chance to shine. Brittny Smith as the older, charismatic, and self-assured “Diva Donna” was probably the standout of the triad, but Ahmahri Edwards-Jones was also quite effective as the shyer Duckling Donna, and Charis Gullage did a remarkable job of blending the energies of her older and younger predecessors as she balanced the vulnerability of a young woman still learning to harness her power and the fiery passion that would take her to the top.