As a singing star, Donna Summer was so big that it takes three people to play her onstage.
OK, well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, the bio-musical opening tonight as part of the Straz Center’s Broadway series, gives us the Donna Trilogy, straight up.
“Since we’re following her life, it would be hard to keep track of all the stages if it was just one person, playing her as a child, then her in her prime, and then her as a mother and a veteran of the music industry,” explains singer, dancer and actress Charis Michelle Gullage. “So we broke her up into three people.”
Gullage plays Disco Donna; she performs many of Summer’s most famous hits – “Hot Stuff,” “Love to Love You” and “Bad Girls,” among others.
“Amahri Edwards-Jones plays Duckling Donna,” Gullage says. “That’s Donna when she’s known as LaDonna Adrian Gaines, when she’s a child and she’s discovering her voice and singing in the church. Coming into her voice.
“Brittny Smith plays Diva Donna. She’s the thru-line character. She begins and ends the show, kind of our narrator. The show is looking back on her life and telling us not only her memories, but about what she learned in her experiences throughout her life.”
Born and raised in New Orleans, Charis Gullage knew what she wanted – to work in musical theater – from an early age. She spent four grueling years at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (a noted performing arts high school), then four more at Loyola University, where she earned her BA.
Gullage was one of the National World War II Museum’s Victory Belles, touring the country performing Andrews Sisters and other war-era songs in uniform.
The national tour of Summer is, to use a well-worn expression, a dream come true.
“There are some moments that it doesn’t seem real for me,” Gullage admits. “And it’s crazy because we’ve been on this tour for two months now, and there are still times when I’m like ‘Is this really happening?’ Oh, this is really happening. Not only am I doing a tour, but I’m getting to play the role of a lifetime.
“And I get to bring joy to other people, including kids who are maybe watching musical theater for the first time. It makes me so happy to do this, bringing back what people brought to me when I was a teenager, sitting in the audience watching Cats.”
Even though Gullage is a generation or two removed from Donna Summer’s heyday, she found a strong connection to the late diva’s music via her father Tony, who’s a professional bass player. “We would sit down and listen to music, and a lot of the times we would bond over the bassline in a song,” Gullage recalls. “Once we were listening to ‘Last Dance,’ and I just thought it was the best song on the planet. It wasn’t just the words, and it wasn’t just her voice – obviously, those are stunning parts – it was the bassline.
“Later I found out, in reading her book, that all of her songs she said were based around her basslines. From there, she’d just build everything else. Once you have that, you can start building from there.”
There’s a lot to take away from Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Gullage believes.
“More than just taking away how big of a party her music is, and how extravagant everything is, from the costumes to the wigs, you start to recognize how much of a forerunner she was for women in the music industry today. Without her, there would be no Beyonce, no Janet, no Rhianna. All of these people who came after her. Because she paved the way for a lot of women in the music industry. Especially for women of color.
“And with everything that’s happened in the world over the last few years, this is something where you can walk in smiling, and walk out smiling even bigger. Because you just sat, or stood on your feet, and danced and partied for an hour and a half.”
Tickets and information here.