World Premiere – Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

La Jolla Playhouse has one of the most impressive lists when it comes to launching musicals. Add to that list the current world premiere of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. The musical is directed by Des McAnuff, who previously directed plays centering on modern music such as Jersey Boys, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Ray Davies’ 80 Days, Randy Newman’s Faust and The Who’s Tommy among many others.

Donna Summer is ably portrayed by three stellar actresses: Tony Award winner LaChanze (Broadway’s The Color Purple, Once on This Island) as “Diva Donna,” Ariana DeBose (Broadway’s A Bronx Tale) as “Disco Donna” and Storm Lever (Playhouse’s Freaky Friday) as “Duckling Donna.” Each is excellent, often appearing n counterpoint simultaneously.

Front, L-R: LaChanze as “Diva Donna,” Ariana DeBose as “Disco Donna” and Storm Lever as “Duckling Donna” with the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL; photo by Kevin Berne.

Woven through the production are the songs made famous by Summer, the best of which include “Love to Love You Baby,” “Heaven Knows” and “On The Radio.” The musical highlight, however, is a powerhouse version of “MacArthur Park.” It appears halfway through the first act, and it is the evening’s show stopper.

Summer’s tale covers seemingly familiar ground: homely girl tries to take her singing talent further, savvy producer rebrands girl into sultry chanteuse, girl’s religious upbringing almost puts the brakes on her career, sexy breakthrough song shows her another world of success and a roller coaster ride ensues.

Storm Lever (center, white robe) as “Duckling Donna;” photo by Kevin Berne.

As the classic face and sound of disco, Summer was a key component in the soundtrack of the genre. Her music still resonates, and music director/conductor Victoria Theodore does a great job recreating the polished production of the original songs, as arranged by music supervisor and arranger Ron Melrose.

Ariana DeBose (center) as “Disco Donna;” photo by Kevin Berne.

LaChanze as “Diva Donna;” photo by Kevin Berne.

Eye catching sets help propel the story on its expected trajectory, kudos to Robert Brill and likewise to costume designer Paul Tazewell.

For those enamored of disco, the evening will be delightful. For those intrigued by the rags to riches story of someone who was embraced by the gay community and whose religious conviction initially condemned them, this is an insightful production which covers far more territory.

As with about 30+ other productions from La Jolla Playhouse, this one is likely beyond for Broadway.


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.