Despite Postponement, SUMMER Remains Hot Stuff

Editor’s Note: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, its Straz run rescheduled due to the COVID-19 crisis from May 5-10, 2020 to July 13-18, 2021, was to be featured in the Straz Center’s publications this month. The article features Tampa DJ Ann Kelly of WDUV-105 FM, who accompanied The Straz team last year to preview the musical in Cleveland, and shares her observations regarding Donna Summer’s legacy and why she thinks Tampa will embrace the show about the Queen of Disco when it hits our stage next summer.

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The hair. That flat cap. All those slinky, sparkly, slippery Halston-style glam gowns. Donna Summer was the 1970s’ J.Lo, Beyonce and Whitney Houston rolled into one, and it was Summer who lit the dynamite that blew open the walls to the music industry for those women in the three decades that followed.

But for anyone who writes off disco as not-real-music or Summer as merely a style icon of an otherwise corny era, the creation and success of her story, portrayed in SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL, rescheduled to play The Straz on July 13-18 2021, proves the dance floor diva was an artistic and business force who shifted the landscape of American pop music through the struggle to make herself heard.

“Donna Summer was a well-packaged person,” says Ann Kelly, Tampa Bay’s resident Radio Personality of the Year and morning show host on WDUV. “But she didn’t have the easiest life, and she had to deal with an awful lot behind the scenes, things today we would hashtag ‘metoo.’ ”

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Ann Kelley (second from the left) with company members (L to R) Dan’yelle Williamson, Alex Hairston and Olivia Elease Hardy of the national tour of SUMMER. (Photo: Cody York)

Last October, Kelly traveled to Cleveland with our public relations and marketing teams to take in the musical about Summer’s life.

“The show follows three Donnas, each representing a different phase of her life. So, you get bits and pieces of her life building like a Lego house. All of the sudden, you get the whole picture—and it’s an amazing story,” Kelly says. “For people who only know about Donna on the surface, this show is going to be really eye-opening. She was an amazing woman. She wrote so much of her music herself, and there was a lot she was responsible for. I think that she discovered her real self the more she got into it then found her own strength. I learned a lot that I didn’t even know—and that was the fun part.”

Kelly’s professional life in radio started as Summer reached superstardom. Megahits such as “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” were in regular rotation when Kelly hosted the local Ladies’ Night at the Dixie Electric Company dance club in Toledo as part of her first radio job.

“I wasn’t a huge club kid, but I just loved music. “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” … I just loved those songs so much. At the start of my career, you got that infectious beat with everything. Disco was just throbbing bass. It was a musical era like the wild, wild west. With Donna, I loved her voice. I loved the way she presented herself. “MacArthur Park” is one of my favorites; she was such an amazing talent.”

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As Kelly knows well, Donna Summer meant more to American music than long nights of liquor-fueled hip bumps, double claps and Saturday Night Fever finger pointing under the disco ball.

“She had drive,” Kelly says. “She had ambition. She believed in herself. And, I don’t think she compromised in the long run. She was beautiful and marketable, but this was a woman with true talent. She was authentic and she was a woman. I think she grew to know herself very well and had a hard road getting there. Talk about a misogynistic era, oh my God. But she survived. For me, it’s a real honor to play music that hangs on like hers. It’s not just a song. It’s somebody’s life. Their blood, their sweat, their tears.”

 

As part of the Cleveland trip, Kelly toured the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame where Summer was inducted in 2013. While there, Kelly met and interviewed Donna Summer’s daughter, Mimi Sommer, who was donating some of her mother’s dresses to the museum. As a Cleveland native, Kelly had a round or two touring the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but coming face-to-face with Donna Summer’s living legacy left a lasting impression.

“Meeting her daughter … that was a highlight of my career I will never forget,” says Kelly. “You can see Donna in her face, and she was so much fun, so great to talk to. Donna’s granddaughters were there, too, in glittery pants. I felt so privileged; I really did.”

Donna Summers’ legacy takes tangible form in the musical as well, which seems to capture the singer’s presence in a way that Kelly felt as the story unfolded.

“The show is enthralling because it brings the person to life,” she says. “You see the humanity —there’ll be a few gasps here and there during the show. You feel for her. For anybody rising in the entertainment industry, there are compromises you may or may not be proud of to get your foot in the door. But I always felt she rose above. At the end of the show, we were all out of our seats, dancing, and I was like wow; I absolutely loved it. I felt her energy in the show, and I don’t think anybody could have written this show without feeling that essence.”

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Kelly feels Tampa is a good fit for this musical.

“I can’t wait to be at The Straz and see how people here react,” Kelly says. “This is a really good city for a show like this with Donna Summer’s music. We’re people who don’t mind having a little bit of fun. We’re pretty good at it, and I think audiences are going to have so much fun. What will be interesting is sitting out in the lobby when everybody’s leaving and listening to the talk. Hearing the memories … ‘do you remember when we did that?’ you know, thinking about certain Donna Summer songs.

“Disco was very sensual. It was compelling. Donna Summer has a very important place in history and there will be a lot of us who have lots of fun memories attached to her music.”

Existing tickets will be honored for the rescheduled dates and times. Ticket holders who cannot attend the new dates or would like to select a different performance or seating area should write an email to comments@strazcenter.org to discuss options.

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