The Donna Summer MusicalEntertainment News, Feature Story, Latest Issue, Section 4A Thursday, November 9th, 2017
San Diego hosts the world-premiere musical that charts the life of the undisputed Queen of Disco
The La Jolla Playhouse has a track record for premiering new works here in San Diego that end up with top talent and long runs on Broadway. Not to mention a plethora of Tony Awards.
The Who’s Tommy (Michael Cerveris), How to Succeed in a Business Without Trying (Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally) and Jersey Boys (Christian Hoff) are just a few of the shows that got their start at the Playhouse. Each of those shows went on to have successful runs on Broadway and won numerous Tony Awards.
The one thing those shows have in common is Des McAnuff at the helm. McAnuff was the artistic director at the Playhouse from 1983-2007 and is responsible for reviving the theater back in 1983.
McAnuff and the La Jolla Playhouse have joined forces once again as the new musical Summer: The Donna Summer Musical premiered Nov 7. It will have a few weeks of preview performances and the opening night is slated for Nov. 19 with a closing date of Dec. 17.
The story focuses on the life of the disco/pop icon with three actresses playing the diva at different times in her life.
The show will definitely showcase many of Summer’s hits including “Dim All The Lights”, “Enough is Enough” (her duet with Barbra Streisand), “On The Radio” and “Last Dance”.
Playing Diva Donna is Broadway star and Tony award winner LaChanze. LaChanze hit the Broadway stage in 1991 playing the character Ti Moune in the musical Once On This Island and earned her first Tony nomination for Featured Actress in a Musical.
She was nominated a second time in 2006 and this time took home a Tony Award for her role as Celie in The Color Purple.
The experience of being nominated and then actually winning a Tony Award is something the actress is humbled by.
“To get it for my first Broadway show was sort of surreal,” LaChanze said. “I didn’t really expect to even get that far. I mean I started that show [Once On This Island], I booked that show out of Backstage. I didn’t have an agent or any sort of representation, so the whole experience was sort of a whirlwind. I was just so excited to be a part of that production. So when I got the nomination it was surreal for me. But like anything else I really wanted to win! (laughs)We like got 11 nominations, and we didn’t win anything and it went on to become this cult favorite. It was such a magical production. So when the Tony nominations for The Color Purple came around it sort of took my expectations down because of that experience. But when I won, considering the category of women I was up against I was very surprised. I was just thrilled to death.”
LaChanze has been a part of many groundbreaking musicals, so you might wonder what it was that drew her to a musical about the life of Donna Summer.
“Donna Summer, for so many of us in my generation, was the representative for so many African American women,” LaChanze admitted. “She stepped outside of the boundaries of what was expected. She wasn’t R&B; she wasn’t soul. She had created this whole genre basically. She was the icon of the genre and was the epitome of freedom and self-expression. ‘Get out there and do what you want to do. Don’t be confined by the limitations of the music industry.’ I was inspired by her and when Des McAnuff came to me to discuss the role and what it involved I thought ‘What a great opportunity’. I get to be a part of a story that’s never been told and a story that I think we all should know.”
LaChanze was drawn to the fact that Ms. Summer’s audience, and America, really, never got to know who she was as a person. She also found it very interesting and innovative that the story would be told through three different voices, three different times in the singer’s life.
While doing research on Summer’s life, LaChanze discovered that there were a lot of conflicting stories about the singer. However, the production had some of Summer’s family members around throughout the development process to make sure that all the facts were accurate. Including the little known fact that Summer was an artist and painted quite a bit.
Donna Summer had so many memorable songs and there are probably a good number of stories in the show that many audience members will take to heart. You might think picking a favorite moment would be tough for LaChanze, but it wasn’t.
“It’s a moment I’m not actually performing in,” LaChanze shared. “It’s a moment when Disco Donna, played by Ariana DeBose, performs “Dim All The Lights”. Where it comes in the show, she has just lost someone that she cares about and it comes at a moment when Donna is really at her bottom. And she sings this song and it’s a transition of what that song takes her through. It’s a very important moment in Donna’s life and I think it’s a beautiful moment in our show.”
The structure of the show gives the audience three separate times in the singer’s life. The part that LaChanze plays is primarily the glue that keeps the show and the action together.
“I play the first Donna that you see,” LaChanze said. “You’re actually coming into an evening of me, [Donna] telling my life, telling you about my life. It’s basically a one-woman show, a memory play and a jukebox musical tied into one. But I am sort of the narrator so I start the show and we go into my life, telling stories about my life. The other Donna’s portray the moments of her life at those times. I am the main thread that takes you through the story.”
LaChanze, like so many people out there grew up listening to Summer’s music. When she became a part of this show she had no idea how the writers would be incorporating the songs along with those stories about her life.
“I didn’t know what to expect about how the story was going to be told,” LaChanze admitted. “I was given the script and loved it and thought ‘this will be very interesting to be a part of because nothing has been done like it.’ So I thought why not jump into something that’s brand new. I’d never worked with [director] Des McAnuff , or [choreographer] Sergio Trujillo, I never worked with the whole team and I’ve always admired the productions that they’ve done together. I was excited to work with Des. I really wanted to work with him. I love working with great directors and I was inspired to work with him.”
LaChanze also found she had a strong connection to many things that happened in Summer’s life and that made being a part of the show more meaningful to her.
“The story was intriguing,” LaChanze said. “There were so many things about her life that I did not know and being able to play a woman at this stage in her life, looking back at her life, it had a lot of similarities to my life. It’s exciting, I can relate to that feeling of looking back at your life and questioning your choices, sort of discovering things about your life that you didn’t know, and learning on your feet. That’s what we do with the story. Donna discovers who she is, on her feet and it’s exciting to watch and to be a part of.”
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical plays at The La Jolla Playhouse Nov. 7-Dec. 17.
For tickets visit lajollaplayhouse.org or call 858-550-1010.
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