Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
National Tour
Review by Garrett Southerland

Alex Hairston and Cast
Photo by Danny Knaub
The title "Queen of Disco" could only belong to the incomparable and glamorous Donna Summer. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, her songs dominated the radio airwaves and stocked the soundtracks of many lives. Her story has recently been brought to Broadway in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, and the touring production is playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through March 1.

The musical opens with a mature Donna (Dan'Yelle Williamson, lovely) doing what she does best: singing, dancing, and winning the hearts of her fans. She soon introduces the audience to two alternate versions of herself: early-career Disco Donna (an outstanding Alex Hairston); and young Duckling Donna (the amazingly talented Olivia Elease Hardy). We will be guided through fragments of Ms. Summer's dramatic life by these three Donnas, and each shines her own light on an action-packed story. There are too many stops to count along the way before Donna finds a sort of peace with who she's been and the challenges she's faced.

This musical is fueled by the energetic staging and choreography of Tony-winner Sergio Trujillo and the fabulous costumes by Paul Tazewell. The rest of the mainly female cast do triple and quadruple duties as other key characters in Summer's life, and I could not tell you how many dizzying costume changes the ensemble goes through. Most interesting, though, is the creative choice to have women in drag play many of the secondary male characters, adding an interesting gender-bending angle that doesn't quite square with Donna Summer's public persona.

The show moves at a lightning pace, running one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, though a break might have been helpful, as many audience members took their own breaks during the performance I attended. Scenic design by Robert Brill is rather sparse, with the focal points really belonging to the lighting design by Howell Binkley and Sean Nieuwenhuis' projection design. In their best moments, Brill and Binkley really bring the 1970s alive again, disco balls and all.

Director Des McAnuff is no stranger to musicals based the lives of real people. The two-time Tony Award-winning director is also behind the Broadway hits Ain't Too Proud, about the Temptations, and Jersey Boys, about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Unlike the latter, which effectively tells a single story from different perspectives, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical feels a bit too fragmented. This might be due to the bookwriting duties having been split among Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and the director himself. For whatever reason, the story bounces from one vignette to the next without forming any strong connections.

Though many of Summer's biggest hits are represented with the clear intention of pleasing the fans, the book largely glosses over many of the intense moments of her personal life, giving the impression of "So then this serious thing happened, but now here's another song you'll enjoy." Other moments feel sugarcoated, seemingly written to rehabilitate the diva's image. An example of this is how the show explains away the anti-gay comments Summer made during the height of the AIDS crisis.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical may not be the most thought provoking or emotionally charged musical you will see, but it embraces the music of an artist people have loved for going on 50 years, and it does serve up entertaining numbers one after another. If you ever wanted to resurrect your platform shoes, hoop earrings, and feather boa, this musical might be your best excuse.

Presented in Durham by WRAL 5 Greatest Hits of Broadway, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical runs through March 1, 2020, at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC. Tickets can be purchased online at,, or through the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787. For more i information on the tour, visit

Songs: Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and others
Book: Coleman Domingo and Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff
Director: Des McAnuff
Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
Music Supervisor and Arranger: Ron Melrose
Scenic Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Sound Design: Gareth Owen
Projection Design: Sean Nieuwenhuis

Diva Donna/Mary Gaines: Dan'Yelle Williamson
Disco Donna: Alex Hairston
Duckling Donna/Mimi: Olivia Elease Hardy
Giorgio Moroder: Kyli Rae
Pete Bellotte/Don Engel: Jennifer Byrne
Neil Bogart/Sommelier/Gunther: John Gardiner
Joyce Bogart: Trish Lindström
Brian/Helmuth Sommer: Jay Garcia
Andrew Gaines/Doctor: Erick Pinnick
Young Mary Ellen/Brooklyn: De'Ja-Simone
Young Dara/Amanda: Cameron Anika Hill
Pastor: Sir Bock Warren
Michael: Candace J. Washington
Maid/"To Turn the Stone" Soloist: Brittany Nicole Williams
Detective/David Geffen/Bob: Brooke Lacy
Bruce Sudano: Steven Grant Douglas
Norman Brokaw: Tamrin Goldberg
Adult Mary Ellen: Dequina Moore
Adult Dara: Crystal Sha'nae