Summer: The Donna Summer Musical She Works Hard For The Money

The national touring company of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is currently playing at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. It was certainly true that Donna Summer worked hard for her money with obvious well-earned results. The same can not necessarily be said for the young cast of this company. They all work hard, but the results leave you feeling someone has gotten short-changed. Yet another jukebox musical, this production is a relatively poorly constructed and produced bio of the late Donna Summer.

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(l to r) Charis Gullage (“Disco Donna”), Brittny Smith (“Diva Donna”) and Amahri Edwards-Jones (“Duckling Donna”)
Photo by Nick Gould

Tracing her roots from her gospel church choir solos to her rise as the Disco Queen of the 1970s. Managed by the late record producer Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records, we see him mold, cajole and shape her into one of the world’s most iconic singers… the image of a music genre. Eventually, she learns that he has been swallowing up the majority of the millions she has earned. She moves to another music legend, David Giffen who manages her through the remainder of her career. Her hit songs are all there: “Love to Love You Baby”, “Bad Girls”, “She Works Hard For The Money”, “On The Radio” “Stamp Your Feet”, “Hot Stuff” and of course “Last Dance”. “MacArthur Park” will absolutely move you to tears. 

The cast does an acceptable job with the vocals on all of these, but the true standouts of the show are the quieter, non-disco tunes: the gospels numbers “On My Honor” and “I Believe in Jesus”. 

Throughout the show, we see three Donnas, as listed in the program, Diva Donna (who does double duty as Donna’s mother, Mary Gaines, played by Brittny Smith, Disco Donna, the icon the world came to love, portrayed by Charis Gullage and Amahri Edwards-Jones as Duckling Donna, the child beginning to learn she is special with a special gift.

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(center) Charis Gullage (“Disco Donna”) and the ensemble of SUMMER
Photo by Nick Gould

All three Donnas have strong belting voices and do justice to the music. In terms of acting ability, Smith, who guides us through Summer’s life story comes across as stilted and just reading her lines. 

Summer’s story is compelling, one of seven children raised in Boston Mass, who is abused for years by the family’s pastor, goes on to get pregnant with a boyfriend while living in Germany, does the right thing, and marries him. Then, at Bogart’s insistence returns to the States, divorces the husband after three years, turns her daughter over to her parents to raise. She tours the country and is constantly conflicted with her life’s choices.  She assuages her guilt with booze and drugs until two of her sisters perform an intervention to get her the help she so desperately needs. She ends up meeting singer/musician/songwriter Bruce Sudano during one of her recording sessions who falls in love with her and vice versa. They marry have two more children and live happily ever after until her terminal diagnosis is discovered and tragically dies of lung cancer at age 63.

The story is compelling and will keep you rooting for Donna throughout. The execution of the production might leave you cold. The costumes by Paul Tazewell, are uninspired and shopworn. The cast is clearly in need of backstage dressers as they appear with collars turned up, ties askew, and even somewhat misfitted. Summer’s opening blue sequined gown looks as if it just was recirculated from a very cost-conscious college production. The wigs, both the women’s and men’s designed by Brandon T. Miller are of the cheapest quality and that plays across the footlights. The set is practically nonexistent, something that is apparently becoming the norm with shows of this type. Chris McCleary’s projection design seen on a mammoth screen over the entire stage gives us the real visual eye candy for the production.

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(l to r) Brittny Smith (“Diva Donna”), Charis Gullage (“Disco Donna”), Amahri Edwards-Jones (“Duckling Donna”) and the ensemble of SUMMER
Photo by Nick Gould

The young cast is clearly working hard and trying their best. Using several of the female ensemble members dressed as men to round out the male ensemble in several numbers is just distracting and off putting. The disco choreography has a very comfortable feel to anyone who was a part of that party generation. The show overall leaves you wanting more. More caring for the characters, more structure for the story. With so much meat to work within the story, Summer deserved more than just the bones that Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff’s book has served up to the audience. 

If you make it through to the finale, “Last Dance” finally gives the audience everything it had longed for throughout the show. The costumes are finally Broadway-quality, the dancing and singing will have you on your feet. A strong end to a mediocre show.

Proctors half-filled house was a sign, however, that the world is not quite ready to embrace the crowds and excitement we have come to feel with live theatre. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical runs through Sunday, December 12th. Ticket prices range from $20-$90. for more information: www.proctors.org or call the box office: 518-346-6204.

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