There's a lot of love to love in 'Summer: The Donna Summer Musical'

Charis Gullage (“Disco Donna”) and the ensemble of "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." (Nick Gould/Broadway Booking Office)
Charis Gullage (“Disco Donna”) and the ensemble of "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical." (Nick Gould/Broadway Booking Office)

Say this about the three Donnas who bring “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” Donna Summer to life at the Emerson Colonial Theatre: They work hard for the money.

The show provides 95 minutes of singing, dancing, romancing and expounding. The Donnas — played by Brittny Smith, Charis Gullage and Amahri Edwards-Jones — give us the jukebox musical version of the Queen of Disco’s life at different stages. Jones plays the young “Duckling Donna,” Gullage “Disco Donna” and Smith “Diva Donna.” All three have solo spots but sync up for some songs. They’re all spectacularly entertaining.

Charis Gullage (“Disco Donna”), Brittny Smith (“Diva Donna”) and Amahri Edwards-Jones (“Duckling Donna”) in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” (Nick Gould/Broadway Booking Office)
(Nick Gould/Broadway Booking Office)

On stage through March 6, the show, written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, generally follows a linear storyline, but any or all of the Donnas might appear at any time, moving things forward or flashing back. One Donna may offer another Donna advice like, “Every song is a chance to be someone new!”

Summer was Dorchester-born, but New York-and-Munich-made. She sang the song “White Boys” in a German production of “Hair” in 1968, but came to fame in 1976, with the multi-orgasmic “Love to Love You Baby.” The single, coming in at 3:20, was a sensation, shocking staid AM radio listeners. An extended nearly 17-minute mix became a huge club hit — hence her “Queen of Disco” tag. It took up the entire first side of her album of the same title, which brought her worldwide fame.

Early in the show, Gullage sings the song just as the real-life Summer did when she recorded the song in Munich: alone in a dimly lit studio, laying on her back on the floor, fantasizing about her boyfriend and producer Pete Bellotte (Emilee Theno).

But “Queen of Disco” was not a sobriquet Summer cared for. “In America, all they know are the gasps and moans,” Disco Donna says. “I want to be more than that.”

And she was.

Brittny Smith (“Diva Donna”) and the female ensemble of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” (Denise Trupe/Broadway Booking Office)
(Denise Trupe/Broadway Booking Office)

Summer, who was 63 when she died from lung cancer in 2012, is remembered as the most soulful and popular female singer to rise out of the disco era. She was a synth-pop pioneer, a hitmaker, a gay icon and a feminist force. She was also the first Black woman to crack MTV’s Caucasian-driven heavy rotation, sustaining her run of hits through the late ‘80s.

Of course, she had obstacles.

“Summer” weaves song and story together in a dizzying patchwork fashion, as jukebox musicals tend to do. As the songs — “I Feel Love,” “On the Radio,” Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and 18 more — dart in and out, we feel like a passengers on a fast-track train ride through events of her life. Years flash by and locations change with lightning speed, so there’s an element of trying to figure out exactly where we are at any one point in time, and who the main players are.

I knew some of the backstory going in, but far from all of it. For example, I’m guessing when some people first hear the name “Casablanca,” that will trigger Rick’s Café for some people, not the record label formed by Neil Bogart (Christopher Lewis) who launched Summer’s career.

While the tone of this musical, directed by Lauren L. Sobon, is upbeat and cheery, some of the situations are anything but. Summer's upbringing and gospel singing in the church appeared to be a positive thing, until it was later revealed that she was sexually abused by a minister. There was also her addiction to “little blue pills,” a troubled first marriage, life-threatening domestic violence and a near-suicide leap from a hotel window at the peak of her career. Finally, there were the rapid-fire deaths of her parents and then coping with her own fatal illness. As I witnessed these events on stage, sometimes rendered as bullets points, I found myself thinking, “Wait! This is important, tough stuff. Slow down. Why aren’t we exploring this in more depth?”

The answer, of course, is that’s not the feeling this — or really any of these jukebox musicals — wants to leave you with. The goal is to expose the troubled times and strife but ultimately get you caught up in the music. So, there’s that sense of constant jarring juxtapositions between harsh real-life truths (or the playwright’s version thereof) and a musical fantasy.

And the music in “Summer” does exactly that. If you were a fan of the real Donna Summer, you will not be disappointed by this representation. What makes it possible are both the singing and the crack band, led by conductor and keyboardist Erika R. Gamez. The ensemble dancing, choreographed by Natalie Caruncho, is dazzling. It’s a full night of action.

If you want more substance, there’s Summer’s 2003 autobiography, “Ordinary Girl: The Journey,” where she explores some of the gnarlier issues in depth. “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” will lift you up and not bring you down too far.

Brittny Smith (“Diva Donna”), Charis Gullage (“Disco Donna”), Amahri Edwards-Jones (“Duckling Donna”) and the ensemble of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” (Denise Trupe/Broadway Booking Office)
(Denise Trupe/Broadway Booking Office)
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Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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