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“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” at Proctors features strong music with a weak biography

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

If you’re looking for an entertaining, high-energy juke box musical filled with memorable songs, “Summer: the Donna Summer Musical” is for you. It plays at Proctors in Schenectady through Sunday and the music in this show is terrific.

The show is filled with songs like “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Love to Love You, Baby,” They are songs that still evoke a certain sense of unrestrained freedom that was displayed on dance floors during the disco era. Perhaps the clothing styles didn’t last, but the music did. Thank goodness the hair styles went too.

If you’re too young to have worn these clothes and you laugh at photos of your parents who did, the costumes in this production will remind you why. However, the costumes in the show do place the time at a moment when disco was new and exciting, personal freedom was unlimited and excess the norm.

A central figure in the disco movement was Donna Summer, who held the title “Queen of Disco.” Interwoven between the high energy songs is the life of the famed singer who could also have been called Queen of Bad Choices. Her life also represented the excesses of the era.

“Summer” is not just a juke box musical, it’s also a biographical look at the woman who made the hits the nation loved. Unfortunately, her life is not nearly as entertaining as is her music.

Actually, it’s a classic case of a person who should be permitted to just let her work speak for her. Donna Summer, who passed away in 2012, was a great entertainer. And though this show tries to portray her as a victim of success, it seems more a revisionist tale of a person who caused many of her own problems. Indeed, the biographical elements of the show seem awkward, contrived - and if not fraudulent - then certainly insincere.

The problem of disconnect is made worse as often, too often, a moment from Summer’s life is offered that is supposed to add emotional context to a song. Granted, the music from the disco era was never noted for its insight, but trying to add real life heartbreak to songs somehow lessens the impact of the music that existed primarily to serve as a background to a hedonistic era.

But for those who know little and care less about Summer’s personal life and are attending the show for the music, those expectations are met and exceeded. In about 110-minutes, without an intermission, the show offers two-dozen songs that still excite. It’s easy to forget how many hits Donna Summer created. This show will remind you of her musical legacy.

When the company offers full out production numbers such as “MacArthur Park,” “On the Radio”, it is happy entertainment. And leaving “Last Dance” as a show ending finale is pure entertainment genius.

If only the creators had minimized Summer’s life story it might have been an even better experience. That story is told using three talented actresses. The young Donna, called Duckling Donna, drops out of high school at 16, leaves home for Germany to be in the cast of a production of “Hair.” There she falls in love with an abusive man but is discovered as a potential recording star. She returns to the States and the Duckling becomes a swan. Duckling is played by a very talented Amahri Edwards-Jones who should have a bright future in theater.

She also morphs into Disco Donna, played by Charis Gullage. This Donna makes her share of bad decisions, especially with men, but her singing and stage presence show why Summer earned the title Queen of Disco. Gullage is that good.

Finally, Summer evolves into a mature woman who is able to keep a career and family in balance. Diva Donna represents the woman who finally became the person the show wants us to love.

It was a great choice to cast Brittny Smith in the role, as she is a charming mature presence who, when connecting with her younger selves during the show, gives all the Donnas a sense of humanity. She’s so good you almost believe her cover story after she alienated her large gay following with the statement “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

The leads are great, the ensemble is tireless, but all is not perfect. Rarely does everything flow with consistency. The show’s pace is slow and some transitions are awkward. Visually, the set relies too heavily on projections, making it seem the cast is working on an almost bare stage. Costuming is as glittery as is the music, but the story needs all the help it can get. And, as much talent as there is on stage, you leave Proctors feeling there should have been so much more. Which, from my point of view, is really the essence of Donna Summer’s personal life.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is a weak biography, but strong entertainment. It plays at Proctors in Schenectady through Sunday. For tickets, schedule and COVID protocol got to proctors.org or call 518-346-6204.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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