Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna) stars in SUMMER © Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Whether you’re a big fan of musical legend Donna Summer or just have a passing interest in her life, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, onstage now at Durham Performing Arts Center under the direction of Des McAnuff, is a fun, intriguing look at all parts of this celebrated artist. It explores her as a child, a woman, a musician, a reluctant sex symbol, and ultimately, as the person she became as a result of all that. And, of course, like any jukebox musical worth its salt, it manages to fit in several big Donna Summer hits- 23 of them to be exact.
The first of them all is “The Queen is Back,” a rocking hit punctuated with flashing lights and Dan’yelle Willamson’s powerhouse vocals. Williamson also takes viewers into the next show-starting song, “I Feel Love.” However, she’s not the only version of “Donna” to grace the stage. In a tale that shows so many sides and so much of the life of an artist, it’s only fitting to have two other actresses portray her. Williamson is the older, mature version of Donna- “Diva Donna,” while Alex Hairston portrays the rising star that is “Disco Donna,” and Olivia Elease Hardy plays young, childhood Donna- “Duckling Donna.”
Alex Hairston (Disco Donna), Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna) and Olivia Elease Hardy (Duckling Donna) star in SUMMER © Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Despite the fact that there are three actresses duking it out as Donna and that the musical covers so much ground, the transitions never feel clumsy. Instead, time and place shift effortlessly, and one song blends seamlessly into the next as Donna’s rise to the top plays out for viewers.
Hairston is tasked with most of the heavy-duty work, though the other actresses also have the challenge of playing other roles in addition to their “Donna” characters. However, Hairston is the Donna most will think of when they remember this show. She effectively portrays the sweeter sides of the singer, making her one to root for through every battle, and she certainly has a lot of them.
The script does not skimp on the less-savory details of Donna’s life, delving into drug use, childhood molestation, abusive relationships, and even lightly touching on some not-so-tactful remarks the singer was accused of making later in her life.
In fact, this shorter (it’s about an hour and 45 minutes) musical covers a lot of heavy topics, but it never feels too weighed-down, thanks in large part to Donna’s unshakeable spirit, which pervades the story. All in all, this is a thoroughly woke tale of a woman who never stopped fighting, and that, through its powerful musical numbers and redemptive theme, encourages viewers to do the same.
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