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REVIEW: ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’ packs plenty of star power but sputters along a splintere

Updated: Apr 23

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” opened at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall on Tuesday, a show that spins like a disco ball in a flashy and fractured tribute to the Queen of Disco herself.

“Summer” whirls across the stage in a feverishly chaotic yet highly danceable parade of events. In an intermissionless run time of one hour and 45 minutes, the show stuffs in 23 of Donna Summer’s groovy, sensual and subversive songs.

Though the numbers are well-woven into moments of Summer’s life and full of show-stopping performances, the result is a head-spinning ride that bounces from scene to scene without a clear focus.

Throughout the production, three actors rotate through the limelight to portray Summer at three distinct life stages: “Duckling Donna,” “Disco Donna” and “Diva Donna.”

The mature “Diva” Donna serves as the primary narrator, reflecting on her life and interacting with her younger selves in unchronological flashes of memory.

Diva Donna, played by Brittny Smith with true superstar effervescence, kicks off “Summer” by spearheading a sizzling performance of “The Queen is Back.”

The number features a striking ensemble of voices bursting from big-haired, sequin-clad women, who instantly dropped the audience into the disco groove. Smith led the pack, commanding the stage with her sultry and chic dance moves.

“The Queen is Back,” featuring Diva Donna (Brittny Smith) and the female ensemble of “Summer.” Denise Trupe

Diva Donna then takes her adoring fans — a.k.a. the audience — back in time to the launching point of her career: the recordings of “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby.” Charis Gullage as the young adult “Disco” Donna shows off her silky high notes, reminiscent of Summer’s own ethereal vocals on the tracks.

Themes of misogyny are set, and the audience prepares to progress through Summer’s career-long struggle with being overly sexualized. Instead, the story abruptly plunges back further in time, and the setting transitions from the recording studio to young “Duckling” Donna’s living room.

The tiny-but-mighty Amahri Edwards-Jones fittingly portrayed the disco queen-to-be. Her tender and powerful performance of “On My Honor” evoked Summer’s gospel roots and captured the singer’s first taste of stardom.

From there, the wheels of the story screech and spin as things speed back up to where they started, grazing over the singer’s love life and skipping her rise to fame.

The audience may start to sense the creative team has bitten off more than it can chew, unable to decide which aspects of Summer’s life deserve the most attention. A narrative arc is abandoned for a mosaic of vignettes showcasing trials in love, abuse, misogyny, mental health and motherhood.

These snapshots arguably craft a more accurate portrait of Summer’s life, choosing to see her as a complex human rather than a one-note icon. However, in an attempt to fit everything in, the show glosses over pivotal, personal experiences which could have spoken to greater world and industry issues.

Blanket statements on subjects like white men ruling the music industry rush off actors’ lips and get dropped into the abyss, never to be fleshed out or found again.

High-intensity moments pop up without warning. For example, shortly after making it known that Summer has a boyfriend, a German man named Gunther, he assaults her and gets arrested. As soon as he manifests, he’s snuffed from the narrative as quick as a flash.

Similarly, a scene portraying an attempted suicide seems like a jarring attempt to weave back in a loose thread — one created through a brief comment about “blue pills” early on in the show. The trauma strikes like lightning without a storm, with no ominous black clouds to let us know it’s coming.

Despite the narrative chaos, the show is undeniably interesting and full of fun moments. It boasts luxurious set pieces, a phenomenal cast and, of course, a killer track list — that is, if you’re a disco devotee.

Fans of Donna Summer will undoubtedly enjoy the ride, shimmying their shoulders to the soundtrack and soaking up the 1970s-glam nostalgia, complete with bell-bottoms, wide collars, smoke and LED lights.

A disco ball descends for the show’s final two numbers, “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” — hits that inspired the fan-filled audience to get up and groove on Tuesday night.

So, if you like a party and can handle the ups and downs of this revolutionary icon’s life, strap on your dancing shoes this weekend.

If anything, it’s entertaining, and it honors a Black woman who paved the way for many in the music industry, which makes it worth the watch.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” runs at TPAC through Sunday, March 27.

Belmont students can apply the promo code “BRUINS” prior to ticket selection to access a student discount.

“Last Dance” starring all three Donnas. From left to right, Charis Gullage as Disco Donna, Brittny Smith as Diva Donna and Amahri Edwards-Jones as Duckling Donna. Nick Gould

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” was directed by Lauren L. Sobon.

PHOTO: “Hot Stuff” featuring Disco Donna (Charis Gullage, center) and the ensemble of “Summer.” Nick Gould

This review was written by Meagan Irby.

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