Tony Awards spotlight: LaChanze is the disco diva in ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’

Donna Summer was the queen of the disco, remembered for her pulsating music and soaring voice. Broadway veteran LaChanze has stepped into the diva’s platform shoes in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” on Broadway. The actress is having so much fun in the role that she could well be adding another Tony to her mantle.

“Summer” utilizes a “concert of a lifetime” conceit to incorporate the entirety of the singer’s life and song catalogue. Three actresses play the singer at varying stages of her life: Duckling Donna (Storm Lever), Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose) and Diva Donna (LaChanze). LaChanze’s Diva Donna looks back on a life of triumphs and misfortunes, and at times even plays Summer’s mother Mary Gaines. The audience bops along to one disco chart topper after another as the singer’s often traumatic life unfolds.

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Tony voters know LaChanze from celebrated roles in “Once on This Island,” “Dessa Rose,” and her award-winning performance in the original production of “The Color Purple.” The effortless and commanding vocals she put to use in those past performances adapts well to Summer’s track list. She floats effortlessly into the high wails of “I Feel Love” and belts out a gritty and determined “She Works Hard for the Money.” She is a singer with full command of her instrument, and the audience eats up every note.

LaChanze showcases her versatility when slipping on a sweater and adopting the mother role in scenes where DeBose plays a younger Donna Summer. The trepidation and protectiveness of this character lends a bit of much needed pathos to a show mostly focused on fun. By contrast, the “Diva” is confident as hell and knows how to work a room. Every time she rises from out of the stage in a stunning sequined gown from Paul Tazewell, she has a swagger that encompasses the entire stage.

Critics were feeling the love too. Jesse Green (NY Times) praised the “exciting vocalism of a cast led by the formidable LaChanze.” Matt Windman (amNY) echoed him by noting that she “lends a dynamic leading presence, including a big voice and a weathered, but unfazed and jocular attitude, which contrasts nicely with the vulnerability expressed by Lever and DeBose.” In a love letter review, Sara Holdren (Vulture) calls the actress “majestic,” concluding that her “voice might in fact be able to bring plaster down from the ceiling.”

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Unfortunately, many of the same critics who praised the leading lady had issues with the musical as a whole docking points for a show structure that runs through life events like a list instead of letting the emotional highs and lows register. Those critiques don’t help LaChanze’s odds, but it is certainly possible to score a Tony nomination for a show the critics turned their noses at. Critics outright trashed the short-lived musical “Scandalous,” but that didn’t stop Carolee Carmello form being recognized for her work.

Plus, LaChanze is one of the only past Tony winners competing for Lead Actress in a Musical. Other than Jessie Mueller (“Carousel”), no other woman in the running has ever been nominated. You would have to go back to 2002 to find a year where this category was made up entirely of first time Tony nominees. Nominators may be inclined to check off a familiar face in a role that brings down the house.

Jukebox musicals have had trouble dominating the Tony Awards as of late, with voters gravitating towards original scores. But if you’re worrying that any snobbery might rob LaChanze of a nomination slot, just take a look inside the Lunt-Fontanne Theater during the final number of “Summer.” The show may not reinvent musical theater, but as LaChanze bellows out “Last Dance” to a packed audience that leaps to their feet to groove along, no one is worried about such things. “The Queen is Back” indeed.

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