By Matthew G. Moross/For The Daily Gazette
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” Fairly succinct that. The show is about Donna and it’s a musical. Probably named that to quell any doubt as to what the subject matter of the evening is and to let us know it’s a musical.
Not very original. But neither is the show. Yep, the Disco Diva has now been “jukeboxed,” joining the ever-growing list of recent entertainment bio musicals such as, “The Cher Show,” “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical,” “Beautiful: The Carol King Musical,” “Motown The Musical,” “Escape to Margaritaville” (the Jimmy Buffet musical) and the now in previews “MJ: The Musical.”
Most of these shows are about a music catalog that needs a dust-off and a cash infusion.
Some are artful tributes with a clever slant or perspective. And some are generic and lifeless as the title on their marquee. We all knew it was only a matter of time before The Queen of the Disco was going to hit the Great White Way, right? But she may have deserved a nimbler panegyric.
The diva’s life checks off most of the items needed for a jukebox musical memorialization; the surprising discovery of raw talent, the scorn of a hyper-disciplined daddy, the descent into drug use, the mismanagement of career, the plentiful sex and the final redemption, here played out under the dramatic deliverance of the disco ball.
The only thing needed to put it all together (forgive me, Sondheim) is a clever framing device to revive that song stack into a slick cash cow. Three are credited with penning the script, Colman Domingo, Des MacAnuff and Robert Cary. The result of this team effort is less a lively celebration of Ms. Donna, more a dose of dramatic belladonna which renders the evening, in a theatrical sense, DOA.
Clichéd, and inert, the book to the show completely hinders the production from being a passionate celebration on the dance floor. But let’s be real, no one in the audience bought a ticket wanting to see a Lifetime movie re-telling of Ms. Summer’s life. They came here to dance!
And dance we do! The talent on the stage, and in the orchestra pit, is plentiful and proud. Every member of this accomplished cast commits to the material and shakes their booty like there is no tomorrow.
Inexplicably, the authors of the evening felt Summer was so large a personality that it would take three actresses to portray her.
So there is the all-knowing sage, Diva Donna (Brittny Smith), the Queen of the Dance floor, Disco Donna (Charis Gullage) and the fledgling Duckling Donna (Amahri Edward-Jones). Far from being demi Donnas, these three are primo Donnas, each actress a powerhouse blessed with a gift for performance and dazzle that eclipse their namesake.
Sacrilegious, I’m sure, but having lived through that era I can attest that Ms. Summer was known, and suitably praised, for her vocal prowess, but not so much her dance moves and charisma. In regard to these last two items, the three dramatically dittoed Donnas leave the real diva in the dust.
Smith is given the onerous chore of narrating the evening in cloyingly written first person-kinda removed voice, but she deftly dashes around the weakness of the dialogue with some well-placed, and appreciated, sass.
The actress knocks several of the tunes out of the park, and I’m talking “MacArthur Park” actually, on which Gullage and Edwards-Jones masterfully join in. Smith’s handling of “Unconventional Love” is a vocal highlight as well as her lead vocal with the closing tune, “Last Dance.”
Gullage scores with the classics “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff” and her duet “Heaven Knows” with Donna’s boyfriend-to-be Bruce Sudano (John Guaragna) which smolders with some fun and sex.
Edwards-Jones’ vocals on “I Remember Yesterday” and, especially, “On My Honor” are impassioned and impressive and the actress does more than hold her own when joining her elder selves in “No More Tears” and “Last Dance.”
It would be churlish to yammer on about the missed opportunities with design, costumes and choreography in this production as the talent onstage, and in the pit (in the skillful hands of conductor Erika R. Gamez), far outweigh the show’s shortcomings. And honestly, most of the deficiencies fade as you fall into a trance hearing the first beats of Giorgio Moroder’s bass line in “I Feel Love.” “Dim all the lights, sweet darling” … indeed.
Dig out your boogie shoes, bell bottoms and halter top (don’t forget your mask and vaxx card) and join in the dance. Worth it.
‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’
WHERE: Proctors, Schenectady
WHEN: Through Dec. 12
HOW MUCH: $20 – $90
MORE INFO: 518-346-6204, www.proctors.org