Review | Donna Summer musical brings ‘Hot Stuff’ to Pittsburgh


Nick Gould, image courtesy of Robin Elrod

From left, Brittny Smith, Charis Gullage and Amahri Edward-Jones of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

By Sinead McDevitt, Contributing Editor

The audience starts to quiet down as the synthesizer starts up, and the neon stage decorations light up. The women of the ensemble strut onstage in sparkly white dresses straight out of the disco club to announce — “The Queen is Back.”

The touring production of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” premiered Tuesday evening at the Benedum Center in Downtown, as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

The show debuted at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater in 2018. It follows the life of singer Donna Summer using popular songs from her discography, including “Hot Stuff,” “Last Dance” and “Bad Girls.”

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, Donna Summer— also known as “The Queen of Disco” and “The First Lady of Love” — was a singer, songwriter and actress most popular for her dance music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Summer died of cancer in 2012.

Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff wrote the script of the show, which begins with an electrifying performance of “The Queen is Back.” Diva Donna (Brittny Smith) — Summer towards the end of her life — then takes the role of narrator, addressing the audience directly. Through the show, Diva Donna looks back at different stages in her life, primarily her 20s, represented by Disco Donna (Charis Gullage), and her childhood, represented by Duckling Donna (Amahri Edwards-Jones).

All three Donnas are superb in the roles, belting out impressive notes and their own particular flair to each version of Summer. Smith also doubles up as Summer’s mother, Mary, and Edwards-Jones as Summer’s daughter, Mimi. It’s a very interesting touch, as it interweaves three generations of Summer’s family together in a very intimate way. Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff’s book takes the audience on a beautiful tour through Summer’s life and the people around her.

There were other standout performances aside from the Donnas as well. John Guaragna was incredibly charming as Bruce Sudano, Summer’s second husband, and it was easy to see how Summer fell for him. Porter Lee Anderson III gave a powerful performance as Summer’s father, Andrew Gaines, walking the line between being a stern and caring father figure. Finally there were Meridien Terrel and Ciara Jones, who had double roles as younger versions of Summer’s sisters and as her daughters. This was their first touring production, and they both did superbly, filling the theater with their notes.

The real highlight of this show is the musical numbers. Donna Summer was not the Queen of Disco for nothing, and her discography is full of songs that’ll get stuck in your head and have you humming the rest of the week.

If there’s one critique I could levy at this show it’s that the inclusion of some songs felt forced. “Hot Stuff” in particular was sort of included just to be included, but it’s also my favorite song out of Summer’s discography and I would have been disappointed if it wasn’t included. And given the rest of the audience got up and was dancing in their seats, I think the number still had the desired effect of being entertaining.

Other numbers I really enjoyed include “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” in which all three of the Donnas sing as Disco Donna is attacked by her boyfriend. Then there was “She Works Hard For the Money,” which Smith performed amidst the ensemble dancing in sharply  dressed suits while Disco Donna entered a legal battle with her record label. Finally, there was “Stamp Your Feet,” a triumphant number performed by the ensemble after Summer learns she is ill and is reassured by her daughters.

It helps that the choreography is also energetic. It’s great watching all the dancers let loose on the stage in costumes straight out of the ‘70s. Every dress that Diva Donna and Disco Donna wear is glamorous and eye-catching.

Not to mention, the lighting and the sets are spectacular. The set is framed with a series of neon borders that change in time to the music and the mood, and there’s a digital screen in the back of the stage that is used for some pretty cool effects during the songs.

Other than that, the sets and effects are minimal, but the audience is never confused as to what’s going on and it leaves more room to show off the choreography.

The show is running until Sunday and is roughly an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. If you’re looking for a way to start your Thanksgiving break on a high note, I definitely recommend seeing this show — one packed with powerful performances that tells the life story of an icon of the music industry and celebrates music that still holds up decades later.