Three Donnas and Their Creative Team Discuss “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”

An awesome gathering of female Broadway royalty and significant musical credits took their places in The Gateway’s lobby as the Fire Island News sat down with the five stars between rehearsals for “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” which opened June 16 in Bellport.

Director Jenny Laroche (front right) and Associate Director and Choreographer Kylie Rae (rear right) with the three Donnas: Grace Capeless (front left), Afra Hines (back left) and Renee Marie Titus (back center). Photo by Scot Patrick Allan.

Jenny Laroche, its director, originated the role of Norman Brokaw in the musical on Broadway and became associate choreographer of the first national tour. She is also associate director and assistant choreographer of “New York, New York,” which won Tony Awards for Best Scenic Design and a special one for John Kander who co-wrote the musical.  

Associate Director and Choreographer Kylie Rae’s, Broadway and first national tour credits include Tony Award-winning “Jersey Boys,” “A Bronx Tale,” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.”

The three women making up the critical stages of her life are Renee Marie Titus as Diva Donna, a Gateway veteran who starred just last year in “Head Over Heels”and also toured nationally with “The Color Purple”; Afra Hines, as Disco Donna, whose Broadway credits include “Funny Girl,” “Hadestown,” and “In the Heights”; and Grace Capeless, as Duckling Donna, whose early Broadway appearances include “The Lion King” and “Matilda.”


Donna Summer died in 2012 at 63 from lung cancer leaving an astounding musical legacy as a singer/songwriter. She had 14 top 10 singles in the late 1970s, four No.1 singles and was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach the top of the U.S. Billboard 200 chart.

Her upbeat, pulsating music drove people to joyfully hit the dance floors in clubs in the 1970s and ’80s hailing her as the “Queen of Disco.” Her last Hot 100 hit came in 1999 with “I Will Go with You.” Pretty amazing if you think about it; her debut as a 10-year-old was as a fill-in for a no-show in her Boston church. The rest was history.

Laroche and Rae were asked if they had ever met Summer or her family and friends. “We did an out-of-town workshop in 2016,” said Laroche. “We did meet her daughters and her husband (Bruce Sudano) as well as Brian Edwards (the celebrity talent executive and producer who worked with her). They were very much part of the creation of the musical.” Laroche referred to her 2003 book “Ordinary Girl: The Journey,” a memoir with Marc Elliot. “She always wanted her life to be turned into a musical.”

Summer’s wish came true: the musical opened as a limited engagement at La Jolla Playhouse in 2017, then on Broadway in April, 2018.

“We really wanted to honor her story without diving into any legalities that she encountered,” said Rae. (A lawsuit against Casablanca Records for allegedly withholding funds was one of them.) “We wanted to portray her love of performing and having that big life. She had stardom and that voice and was a mother, wife and friend. We do touch on some of the sensitive topics.”

Twenty of her hit songs will be front and center, sung by the three women.

“Too many songs for one person,” joked Hines. “Her catalogue is amazing. What’s beautiful is that we track her journey. She’s piecing her life together. If you could physically speak to your younger self and future self, what would you learn? Our Diva Donna is sitting in gratitude but also what she was dreaming of. She also has said she was a character she was playing. Who was that person? And who was on the soundtrack?”

Hines brought up her prolific creativity, always thinking and writing. “She had scraps of paper she left all over the place,” she added.

With songs like “On the Radio,” “Hot Stuff,” MacArthur Park” and “Love to Love You Baby,” will there be a proscenium into the audience? Because the songs are dance drivers.

No proscenium but, “We will be out there,” said Rae. “We’re trying to tap into the rawness of the music and how it all started with moves like locking, vogueing, hustle, it all started in the underground dance scene.”

“The Bronx was burning then,” added Laroche.

There were devastating fires in the South Bronx between 1970 and 1980; 80 percent of housing was lost to fires and 250,000 people were displaced.  It was one of the most culturally diverse integrated neighborhoods in the country and a known music center. But landlords had sold the apartment buildings to speculators increasing more homes as well as density and residents lived in difficult situations, which literally resulted in a racially created tinderbox.

“Everything was on fire, there were drugs, prostitutes,” Laroche continued. “You had to be in the room tapping into that.”

The dancing and music was probably a kind of release.

“I think that’s what we want to get out there,” Laroche said. “We set the era and how it formed that music. It was a turning point for women.”

A lot of disco dancing was without partners, it was pointed out.

“Women didn’t need a guy to dance with,” agreed Rae.

The three Donnas nodded they were are all eating, sleeping, rehearsing their roles, as were Laroche and Rae. “It’s eight to nine hours,” Titus said. Then rehearsals on their own time. (Titus is a mom, as are the others except for Capeless.)

Each Donna will have her pivotal moment.

“For Disco Donna, the turning point is “MacArthur Park,” that’s when Donna says I’m going to let them see me,” said Hines. “The challenge of this work lights a fire for me. As a theater performer, she’s one of us.”

Capeless, the youngest in the group as Duckling Donna, added an anecdote that brought down the house. “I remember sitting in a room with my sisters, my brother was the spotlight operator so I could perform,” she said.

“I used to do that too with my cousins as well, they gave out tickets,” laughed Laroche.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” will be at The Gateway, 216 South Country Road, Bellport, through July 16. For tickets, visit or call 631-286-1133.