The soul of Motown comes to The CivicSection 4A, Entertainment Feature Thursday, June 11th, 2015
LGBT Weekly talks to Allison Semmes who plays Motown icon Diana Ross
The music and artists that were a part of Motown in the early ’60s changed the face of music and started an era of soul and dignity.
Berry Gordy Jr. created Motown in 1959 and it was fully incorporated by April 14, 1960. The record label and its artists gave Americans a new kind of music to groove to, and along the way helped racial integration.
Artists like Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five and The Supremes made Gordy and Motown a household name. It’s a name that exists to this day and is still going strong.
In April 2013 Motown: The Musical, based on Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, shimmied its way onto the Broadway stage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. It ran there for two years with a planned re-opening sometime this year.
The musical is a retelling of Gordy’s creation of the famous label and showcases the artists and their music in a flashback. With actors portraying Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and none other than Ms. Diana Ross.
The National Tour began in April 2014 and Allison Semmes, who played the role of Florence Ballard on Broadway, now gets to play the iconic role of Ms. Ross in the National Tour.
Getting the chance to watch Valisia LeKae, who created the role of Ross on Broadway, prepared her for taking over the role for the tour. Of course, Semmes did a lot of her own homework as well.
“I studied as much footage as possible on Diana Ross and The Supremes throughout the years on YouTube, or as I call it ‘YouTube University’!” Semmes said. “I also watched her films Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany and read her autobiography Secrets of a Sparrow to understand more about her inner being.”
Semmes’ portrayal of Ross is not an imitation of the superstar, but she does toss in a few Ross-isms here and there.
“The creative team did not want the actors to give impersonations or imitations of the icons they were playing,” Semmes said. “If anything, they want us to give their essence. I play with the lilt in her voice and sprinkle some of her signature gestures but I don’t stray too far to where it doesn’t feel natural for me – Allison. After all, there is only one Diana Ross!”
Semmes also had the chance to work closely with the creator of Motown, Mr. Berry Gordy Jr. who also wrote the book for the musical.
“It’s such an honor and kinda surreal to be able to work so closely with Mr. Gordy,” Semmes admitted. “He’s such a visionary and believes in all of us to tell his story. It’s an honor hearing from him and getting direction.”
Semmes, a Chicago native, began singing at an early age and Motown was something that she literally grew up with.
“I grew up listening to Motown (as well as funk, blues, jazz and classical music) in my household,” Semmes said. “I’m familiar with the Motown sound. I love the late sixties Supreme’s music but I am in love with the seventies glam Diana Ross, fashion and essence wise!”
The rumor is that Semmes started singing at birth and obviously is still singing today. It’s a rumor that is absolutely 100 percent true according to Semmes herself.
“I grew up singing right out the womb!” Semmes exclaimed. “When I started to harmonize with the vacuum cleaner at age three my mother put me in the church choir and Chicago Children’s Choir, which introduced me to singing professionally. I continued to sing in choirs through high school and college even, and studied opera in undergrad; I wanted to be the next Kathleen Battle. After I graduated, I had a change of heart and moved to New York City to pursue my true goal of being on Broadway. I went to NYU to study musical theater and hit the ground running.”
Motown: The Musical marks the second National Tour Semmes has been on with the first being The Color Purple. Semmes admits this tour, which has been on the road for a year and a half, has advantages over her first time out on the road.
“Wow … I can’t believe it’s been a year and a half!” Semmes said. “Time flies and crawls at the same time (laughs!). There are definitely ups and downs to touring. It can be rough living out of your suitcases but it’s been an adventure as well. Each city has its own vibe and energy and it’s been so much fun to visit these cities around the country, like the actual Motor Town Revue. I was on one other national tour, the non Equity The Color Purple, but we were in smaller cities for one night only. This tour is definitely a lot more cushy, we sit in cities for weeks at a time which is great.”
Of course Semmes has a tentative plan, or two, for when the tour is over. One of those plans is to take a trip to France, a place she just didn’t get enough of the last time she was there.
“I studied abroad in the South of France for a month in college,” Semmes said. “I fell in love with the language, the food, the way of life, the architecture; it was just all so breathtaking. I was just in Paris for two days but something in my very being shifted. I just knew that I would have to come back to sing jazz and live for a little bit à la Josephine Baker style.”
While Semmes is having the time of her life getting the chance to play and sing the songs of such an icon, she does have a few other roles that she’d love to have the opportunity to play. One of the roles she’d like to tackle was made popular by Ms. Stephanie Mills back in 1974.
“Dorothy in The Wiz!” Semmes exclaimed. “That’s one role I’ve always wanted and needed to play. I feel like her at times, in a strange exciting world trying to figure things out, from the Midwest, and finding love in her. It’s such a beautiful and magical story!”
For the time being Semmes is more than happy to share with the country her love of Motown, Diana Ross and music that made us all sing.
“One of my favorite parts in the show is Reach Out and Touch,” Semmes confided. “It’s truly like a Diana Ross concert in the middle of the show and it’s when I can come out into the audience and really connect with people and I love to break that “fourth wall” and get up close and personal. Finding volunteers every night is exciting and nerve wracking because you never know who will come up and sing with you! I’ve had just about everyone come up and participate … super singers, drunk audience members, heartthrobs, a 4-year-old, non-singers and even a belligerent Kid Rock!”
Catch the show that captures an era of music that transformed a nation and witness Allison Semmes in the role of a music legend that she finds in her own words, “exhilarating, surreal, humbling and natural – it’s all of those things!”
Motown: The Musical runs until June 14 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, Third and B Street in San Diego. For tickets visit broadwaysd.com or call 619-570-1100.
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