Icon of disco era: ‘Summer: Donna Summer Musical’ to open at Proctors

Charis Gullage, center, and the ensemble of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” perform the song “Hot Stuff.” (Nick Gould)

Charis Gullage, center, and the ensemble of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” perform the song “Hot Stuff.” (Nick Gould)

If Charis Gullage had been alive in the ’70s, would she have felt right at home on the disco dance floor?

“Oh, absolutely,” says the star of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” opening next Tuesday at Proctors and running through Sunday, Dec. 12. “I love the music, the lights, the clothes, all that glitz and glamour. I love it all.”

Gullage gets to immerse herself into that life by playing “Disco Donna,” one of three performers sharing the role of Summer at different stages in her life. As the name indicates, Gullage plays Summer when she was at the top of her game throughout the 1970s, producing hit singles and albums that defined the disco age.

“There’s always a lot of ups and downs, but there was a lot of fun in her life, and I think our show is about celebrating the good things that happened,” said Gullage, who pronounces her first name with a hard C or K sound. “She went on quite a journey, creating a whole new genre of music for herself and the performers that came after her. She had a fantastic career.”

Summer was one of the music world’s biggest names throughout the 1970s before the disco craze began to wane in the 1980s. Her last major hit was “On the Radio,” which climbed to No. 5 on the U.S. charts in 1979. She died in 2012 at the age of 63 due to lung cancer.

“The show isn’t about mourning her death,” said Gullage. “We end with ‘The Last Dance,’ and that’s a song that gets everybody in the audience up on their feet. Our show is really a party in her honor.”

Early connection

Summer first popped up in Gullage’s life when she was a very young girl.

“My father was a musician, a bass player, so I grew up listening to her music,” said Gullage, who grew up in New Orleans. “I felt a connection with her very early in my life, and I enjoyed that connection with my father. I connected with him through the bass in her music.”

Gullage’s love of performing also came very early in her life.

“I did my first play when I was 6, and my teachers told me how I was very articulate for my age, and that I should take up acting,” she said. “Then when I was 11 my mom took me to my first national tour, ‘Cats,’ and I loved it. I knew that singing and performing was what I wanted to do with my life.”

A graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans, Gullage won a 2019 Big Easy Award for playing Dorothy in “The Wiz,” and also earned a nomination for her work in “Ragtime” as Sarah.

She hasn’t been to the Northeast outside of a few trips to New York City, but she’s looking forward to seeing Proctors and Schenectady.

“I just love saying ‘Schenectady,’ ” she said, laughing. “I love traveling, and I love the opportunity I’m getting to travel and see all these wonderful theaters, and all the wonderful old architecture. I’ve never been to Schenectady but I’m looking forward to seeing it. Seeing new places and old theaters is a really cool part of all this.”

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” made its world premiere in November of 2017 at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and made its Broadway debut at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on March, 28, 2018. The show earned two Tony Award nominations and ran for 289 performances before closing on Dec. 30, 2018.

The book for the jukebox musical was written by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, while Summer wrote much of the music during her career along with a team of collaborators, including Italian composer Giorgio Moroder, known as the “Father of Disco.”

The Broadway cast included LaChanze, Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever as the three Donnas. Joining Gullage in the touring production are Brittny Smith as Diva Donna and Amahri Edwards-Jones as Ducking Donna.

Smith is a Houston native and a graduate of Texas Southern University, while Edwards-Jones grew up in northern Virgina and graduated from The Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia.

The national tour began in September in 2019, and after shutting down for the COVID-19 pandemic, opened back up again last month in Pittsburgh. It has also played in Charleston, South Carolina, and is at The Grand in Wilmington, Delaware, this weekend before moving into Proctors on Tuesday.

After its Schenectady visit, the tour moves to Wichita, Kansas, and around the country before winding up its run in Thousand Oaks, California, in May of 2022.

Born in Boston on Dec. 31, 1948, Summer started her singing career as the lead singer in a psychedelic rock band named Crow. She moved to New York City in the mid 1960s and worked as an actress, dancer and singer, before moving to Europe where she performed in “Hair” with a German company.

In 1976, she had her first major American hit with “Love to Love You Baby,” which she wrote with Moroder. It climbed to No. 2 on the U.S. charts, and she had 13 more top ten singles, including “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff” and a remake of “MacArthur Park.”

All audience members for “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” must wear a mask and show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. There will be performances each night during the show’s run, with matinees scheduled for Thursday and Saturday.

Marks a return

This week’s show also marks the first major event on the Proctor’s Main Stage since March of 2020. It was a Thursday afternoon, March 12 of that year, when Proctors CEO Philip Morris decided to follow Broadway’s example and shut down the theater.

At the time, Morris told The Gazette that the theater could very likely stay closed through the summer. Last week he mentioned how he never would have believed Proctors would remain mostly idle for 20 months.

“It was much worse than I ever could have imagined,” he said. “We had to make radical cuts in our staff and our activities, and it’s been a long road back. We’re very happy to start up again with our first national tour since COVID began, but we also have to see how our audience responds. We will be following all COVID protocols because many people still don’t feel comfortable going out.”

“Bandstand” was the show that suddenly had its three-day run at Proctors that weekend in March of 2020, while the next show on the schedule, for March 24-29, was, coincidentally, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.”

Morris added that the Proctors Arcade will officially reopen Monday, Dec. 6, on a limited basis, and the Apostrophe Cafe, located inside the Proctors complex, will be open for coffee, tea and snacks.

‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Dec. 7-12; performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $90-$20
MORE INFO: Visit or call (518) 346-6204

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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