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The ‘Summer’ of our discontent

The Queen of Disco’s songbook elevates an otherwise rickety jukebox musical

Brittny Smith, as “Diva Donna,” is one of three actresses who portray Donna Summer at different stages of her life and career in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical."Denise Trupe

As musical biography, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is flimsy, full of holes, and utterly formulaic.

On the level of musical experience, though, the touring production at the Emerson Colonial Theatre has its intermittent satisfactions, largely thanks to the intrinsic strength of Summer’s song catalog and the trio of performers who embody her during different phases of her life.

In their best moments, Brittny Smith, Amahri Edwards-Jones, and especially Charis Gullage succeed in channeling the excitement generated by the Boston-born Queen of Disco.

Not that Summer embraces that title in “Summer.” Resisting efforts to pigeonhole her, she asserts that “Disco is going to crash, and I don’t want to be there when it burns.”


But “Summer” is under no illusions about what the singer is best remembered for. Most of the nearly two dozen songs in “Summer,” which is directed by Lauren L. Sobon and choreographed by Natalie Caruncho, are from Summer’s disco-era heyday.

And that’s good news. Anyone who lived through the ‘70s and early ‘80s can recall how Summer’s voice came blazing through the radio, sounding like no one else and pulsing with an energy that captivated your ear even if you weren’t a fan of disco.

So performances of tunes like “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “On the Radio,” “MacArthur Park,” and “Last Dance” are virtually guaranteed to be — and were on Wednesday night at the Colonial — crowd-pleasers. (Inevitably, a disco ball made an appearance during “Hot Stuff.”)

The bad news is that even by the elastic standards of jukebox musicals, “Summer” has a very thin script (by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff) and a ramshackle structure.

Charis Gullage (center) as "Disco Donna" in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical."nick gould

Better examples of the genre such as “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” have also been eager to make fan bases happy, but they coupled that with coherent stories and meaningful characterizations rather than simply building a conveyor belt for an artist’s greatest hits.


Or a rickety bridge. Supporting characters are so feebly developed in “Summer” that it’s not always clear who means what to Donna and why. Her five years of sexual abuse by a pastor, which surely deserves fuller emphasis, is dealt with briefly and late. The musical awkwardly tries to finesse a controversy over reports (which Summer denied) that she made anti-gay remarks at a concert.

Shoehorned into “Summer” are brief efforts to address issues such as the changing roles of women and the battles they face in a music industry eager to objectify them, but such attempts don’t add up to much more than a soundbite. What mostly transpires for the duration of “Summer”’s intermission-less one hour and 40 minutes are fragmentary sketches, not full-fledged scenes, which creates a choppy tempo, driven by the creative team’s impatience to get to the next song.

Once we get to those songs, as noted, there are rewards in the form of some production numbers that pack a real punch.

As “Disco Donna,” Gullage does an excellent job of capturing Summer as she was during the years of her career breakthrough and subsequent prominence in the disco scene. Gullage brings electricity to nearly every scene she’s in. (When “Summer” premiered on Broadway in 2018, Disco Donna was played by Ariana DeBose, who has since gone on to leave a memorable stamp on the role of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s new version of “West Side Story.”)


The narrative conceit for “Summer” is that we are witnessing “the concert of a lifetime,” being delivered by middle-aged “Diva Donna.” She is played by Smith with a self-assurance and panache that veers into grandiosity on occasion. (Smith also portrays Summer’s mother; Porter Lee Anderson III plays Donna’s father.)

Edwards-Jones is touchingly idealistic as the preteen “Duckling Donna.” Insecure about her looks, young Donna is drawn to music not just because she has a gift for it but because, as she says, “Every song is a chance to be someone new.”

That sort of insight and that kind of psychological complexity could provide the foundation for an illuminating musical. Alas, with “Summer,” it did not.


Directed by Lauren L. Sobon. Choreography by Natalie Caruncho. Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, and others. Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff. Presented by Broadway In Boston at Emerson Colonial Theatre through March 6. Tickets start at $44.75. 888-616-0272, www.BroadwayInBoston.com

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.