The Donna Summer Tribute Site

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

At The Gateway Playhouse Bellport, NY

June 17, 2023


Warning! There will be some spoilers. If you haven’t seen the musical then read at your own risk. (And if you haven’t seen it and aren’t sure where you can catch it, try a YouTube search. You might just find some interesting “clickbait” :-)  )

First of all, I have been going to Gateway since I was just a kid and they have consistently put on great shows. It’s a smallish theater – seats only about 500 people- so every performance has a level of intimacy. It is one of my happiest places!

So naturally I was excited to see they had Summer: The Donna Summer Musical on this season’s roster.  And Gateway did NOT disappoint. The casting was spot on with Renee Marie Titus as Diva Donna, Afra Hines as Disco Donna, and Grace Capeless as Duckling Donna. (Just a side note – Afra Hines filled in for Ariana DeBose a few times on Broadway.) Afra was amazing as Disco Donna – she has the moves! And I got surprisingly emotional when she did MacArthur Park. And Rene just blew me away with Friends Unknown! Talk about an eleven o’clock number!  (OK, it was more like a ten o’clock number because the musical is fairly short.  LOL)

I did a full almost note by note review of the Broadway version of the show when I saw it back in the ancient times before COVID LOL, so I won’t do that here. But I will point out a few differences.

But first – the audience. Gateway’s audiences tend to skew to the older side. So lots of senior citizens in the audience. And in a weird twist for someone used to going to Donna Summer concerts, this audience was mostly hetero couples, who were more casual Donna fans. They didn’t really come to live fully unless the Donnas were performing hits. They didn’t care about The Queen Is Back or some of the other lesser known songs. They did get excited for (and in some cases sang along with) the big hits. I Believe In Jesus was very well received though, as was Friends Unknown – like I said, Rene was amazing on that one! So in a way it sort of reminded me of the casino shows, where the audience would be more casual fans than diehard fans. One funny thing, before the show started – I like to people watch, and there was a guy in front of me, maybe in his 40s, bragging to his friends that he knew Donna’s music and back in the day he even had some of her old 78s. Umm…. 78prm records stopped being made in the late 50s.  LOL

One not so funny thing…. As you probably know (and if you don’t go read my Broadway review), the Adam & Steve remark is addressed. So Diva Donna explains that at a concert she was trying to get more women to sing along so she said “God made Adam & Eve not Adam & Steve.” (She goes on after that to explain it was a bad joke, she didn’t mean to hurt anyone…) But what bugged me was a pocket of people laughed very loudly at that “joke”. I felt the same sort of jarring feeling I get sometimes reading really old novels where a character says something that was probably perfectly normal when the book was written, but by today’s standards is racist as hell. I guess I’m not just used to being in a crowd that would find that remark funny?

But… I was not there to see the audience, I was there to see a show.  :-)  And while I did enjoy it immensely, there were a few notable differences from the Broadway version.  Let’s start with the very beginning. As you probably know, the show opened with a record player on a pedestal. (Quick audience aside again, the record player and pedestal were spotlighted against a dark backdrop before the show even started. So as people were taking their seats, one lady who must not have been wearing her glasses, asked her husband why there was a washing machine on the stage.  LOL) Back to the record player. On Broadway, you could see the Casablanca logo on the record they used. It was immediately recognizable – probably to anyone who was around in the mid to late 70s. (If you weren’t a disco fan then, you would have known it from KISS too.) Unfortunately, Gateway just used any old record. This had a blue label. I want my Casablanca label!!! LOL

Another silly thing they did differently – in the fight scene with Gunther (set to Enough Is Enough) on Broadway, Disco Donna whacks Gunther with a copy of a Barbra Streisand book.  I found it a cute little nod to the duet during an intense scene, but at Gateway there was no book.

In the land of a more serious annoyance, the show is set as a concert. So when Diva Donna comes out, after she sings, she talks to and jokes with the audience. Just like Donna used to.  Gateway opted to use a laugh/applause track to punch up the reaction to Diva Donna’s patter. I found that distracting. I mean, I get why they did that. It’s a small theater that has to pretend to be a big theater for this “concert” and let’s face it – the casual fans in the audience were not invested in the music or the performances yet. So, yes, I see the need for it, I just personally didn’t like it.

Other than the record  LOL, the first major difference is the set. On Broadway they had a bunch of LED screens that would sometimes display photos of Donna.  Gateway’s set was much more simple. They opted for a simple dark background most of the time punctuated with various lighting effects. And of course on Broadway they had platforms for the three Donnas that would sometimes rise up out of the floor. Here they rolled in platforms from the wings and the Donnas had to step up on to them.

The next major difference is that there is an intermission at Gateway. On Broadway the show ran without intermission. I never saw the touring company of the musical, so someone will have to let me know if there was an intermission in that. I was wondering how well that would work out because 2 act shows generally have a clear logical division between the acts. They use act 1 to introduce all the characters, put them in a situation and then blow it all to pieces as the act closes. Then they spend act 2 putting everything back in place for the happy ending. (Unless of course, it’s show that doesn’t have a happy ending. Then they build up everything in act 1 and blow it all to hell in act 2 so you can leave the theater feeling sad.)  Summer, doesn’t really have a clear split like that. What they did was they used MacArthur Park as the end of Act 1 and as the beginning of Act 2.  Act 1 ends with the three Donna’s singing the song, and act 2 picks up with Disco Donna seen from behind performing the song (presented only as a short instrumental )as reporters and her handlers gather back stage. Then Disco Donna finishes her ”performance” and joins them for an interview. It worked very well. 

Another big difference was that they dropped Stamp Your Feet. On Broadway, Diva Donna got her cancer diagnosis (To Turn The Stone) and then the family resolved to fight. (Stamp Your Feet.) At Gateway, after To Turn The Stone, the dialogue about fighting is similar, but instead of leading into Stamp Your Feet, it leads to Diva Donna and the family surrounding the piano as she starts to sing Friends Unknown to them as a way of acknowledging their support. The other characters quietly drift offstage leaving Diva Donna singing it to us, her audience. As on Broadway, she stops part way through to explain the Adam & Steve thing, and then she just blows the rest of the song away!

There were also things that weren’t different, but that hit me differently now I have seen the musical a few times, and now that I have seen the documentary. For instance, when Duckling Donna sings in church for the first time there is definite foreshadowing of the abuse she was experiencing from her pastor. I totally missed that the first time I saw the show. Now, it’s so obvious to me. (Plus the actor who plays Duckling Donna also plays Mimi – so if you saw the documentary… well, you know.)

And later when Diva Donna says, “Everyone gets a gift. Your gift was for me. My gift was for you,” my brain just went to the 1984 birthday clip in the documentary with Donna telling her friends and family that she hoped that she was able to bring something to their lives and get something from their lives that is irreplaceable.  Clearly, I wasn’t there  LOL, but yeah Donna, you brought something to my life that is irreplaceable.

Now I’m gonna go watch If There Is Music There followed by a bunch of silly outtakes and either laugh or cry (or both!)  :-)



 © 2023 the author
Copyright 1997-2023