Donna Summer musical is spectacular, like a Vegas show

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★½☆

Dan’yelle Williamson (center) stars as Diva Donna in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy for Murphymade.

I simply can’t help it: My pun-lovin’ inner devil insists I call “Summer” a hits-and-run jukebox musical.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” spotlights — with glitzy, androgynous, ever-changing costumes by Paul Tazewell and eye-catching, stylized, decade-appropriate choreography by Sergio Trujillo — the Queen of Disco’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s chartbusting tunes.

Including show-stoppers like “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls,” “On the Radio,” “White Boys,” “Last Dance” and “Hot Stuff.”

But when it comes to the real underbelly of the five-time Grammy winner’s life, the extravaganza darts away from the darkness. So I get only evanescent glimpses of child abuse by her pastor, physical abuse by her partner, pharmaceutical abuse by the singer herself.

I certainly do get a strobe-studded light show filled with 23 slick production numbers — often with legs up to here — that make my wife comment as we exit from the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco: “I feel like we’ve just been to Vegas.”

Indeed, the glossy musical showcases one spectacle after another after another, especially noteworthy when three Summer incarnations — Dan’yelle Williamson as Diva Donna, Alex Hairston as Disco Donna and De’Ja Simone as Duckling Donna (subbing for Olivias Elease Hardy) — belt out songs simultaneously despite having varying voice characteristics.

Which translates into the drop-dead BroadwaySF production — at 100 minutes with no intermission — not being nearly long enough for a packed house of Summer buffs who repeatedly clap, stomp and shout out worshipping phrases to their vocal deity.

Album cover of music by the real Donna Summer.

As an outlier, I’m mildly annoyed that the presentation — highlighted by high-energy throughout, accented by a booming live five-piece band and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ flashy geometric projections — skips over the details of the hot singer’s life as if they were hot coals.

Including the born-again, ex-gospel choir member’s alienating a major chunk of her fans with anti-gay comments during the AIDS epidemic.

It also downplays her rampant insecurities despite throwaway narrative lines like, “On a good day I felt like Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — on a bad day, I felt like Judy Garland”).

And Summer’s upbringing (as one of seven kids) and adult family life (she had three offspring of her own, all girls) almost come off like dramatic distractions.

The show does deal positively, on the other hand, with her feminist propensities — and her flouting her African-Americanness, spurred by the time when whites who hadn’t seen any blacks walked up to her on Munich streets and tried to touch her skin.

Named LaDonna Adrian Gaines at birth in Boston, she’d later assumed as a stage name that of her German husband, Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer (keeping the alternate spelling following an album cover typo) and rose to star status via recordings that underscored, as the musical’s collaborative book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff (who also directed) emphasizes, orgasmic gasps and moans.

She sang — in addition to disco — rhythm ‘n’ blues, soul and rock, creating 42 hit singles and selling more than 100 million records worldwide.

The First Lady of Love, who died of lung cancer at age 63 in 2012, a year before she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, acted, too (in spite of having consistently thought of herself as an ugly duckling).

Her continuing popularity is evident opening night.

Though most audience members (who undoubtedly revel in the show’s concert elements and care little whether biographical components are fleshed out) remain in their seats, many can’t sit still. Their upper bodies rhythmically sway, their heads bob, their arms reach for metaphoric rafters.

In contrast, the couple next to me more than once can’t help jumping up and dancing. Just as they had, I suspect, when the live Summer was performing in the disco heyday.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” runs at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. (at Market), San Francisco, through Dec. 29. Performances, 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: 56 to $256 (subject to change). Information: (888) 746-1799 or

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at or

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at or, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →