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‘Motown the Musical’ launches tour in Chicago, and hometown headliner thinks that’s Supreme

Submitted by on May 7, 2014 – 10:54 am

Allison Semmes is Diana Ross in 'Motown the Musical' first national tour. Preview: Allison Semmes portrays Diana Ross in re-creation of the Motown era that opens May 8 for a run through Aug. 9 at the Oriental Theatre, a presentation of Broadway in Chicago. 

By Lawrence B. Johnson

It was no great leap for Chicago native Allison Semmes to take on the role of Diana Ross for the national tour of “Motown the Musical,” which launches May 8 at the Oriental Theatre. Semmes grew up listening to the Supremes and other Motown sounds on her mom and dad’s vinyl LPs. 

Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross), Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson) in 'Motown the Musical.' (c) Joan Marcus, 2014“My childhood was filled with all kinds of music – jazz, blues, funk,” the twentysomething Semmes recalls. “My grandmother played organ and piano, and I sang in the church choir, then with the Chicago Children’s Choir. My parents say when I was about 3 years old, I was harmonizing with the vacuum cleaner.

“By sixth grade, I’d made up my mind I wanted to move to New York and live the Broadway dream, even though I wasn’t sure what Broadway was.”

It didn’t exactly happen – poof! – like that. First came the groundwork, years of classical voice training at the University of Illinois and musical theater studies at New York University. But when the chance came to merge her dream with the one lived by Diana Ross in the 1960s, Semmes was ready. During the Broadway run of “Motown the Musical,” she understudied the part of Ross while playing one of the other Supremes, Florence Ballard. And several times she went on as the group’s famous lead singer. Family members who trouped to New York for that star sighting now can catch her on home turf, and plan on doing so more than once, Semmes admitted rather quietly.

The Temptations are brought to life in 'Motown the Musical.' (c) Joan Marcus, 2014“Motown the Musical” is a supercharged account of how a visionary Detroit entrepreneur named Berry Gordy created a new pop sound that would revolutionize the music industry – and open a new world of opportunity for African American performers in the white mainstream market.

It’s a tale packed with 50 hit songs from the ‘60s and sprinkled with the historical glitter of legends like the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and Marvin Gaye.

For Allison Semmes, stepping full-time into the shoes of Diana Ross has been a process of learning and appreciation.

Clifton Oliver is Berry Gordy in 'Motown the Musical.' (c) Joan Marcus, 2014“It’s one thing to know the lines, and another to get into the show’s dynamic flow,” she says. “I’ve had to discover Diana on my own, and one thing I’ve come to understand is that she was very smart. From the beginning, when she first met Berry around age 12, she knew what she wanted. Besides being a stellar performer, she was a team player – and she and Berry Gordy were a team. He planned out the Supremes’ career, but she basically told him, ‘If you can think it, I can do it.’

“When you have an artistic relationship like that, connections are made on so many levels. You’re in the same vein, sharing the same energy. They saw eye to eye on so many different things.”

Ross and Gordy were magical hit makers. The Supremes topped the pop charts a dozen times during the 1960s. Asked which of those infectious songs she enjoyed recreating most, Semmes hesitated.

“Oh, wow. ‘Baby Love,’ ‘I Hear a Symphony,’ ‘Stop in the Name of Love.’ We do about 10 numbers – including Jackie Wilson’s ‘Lonely Teardrops,’ which is the song we audition with for Berry. What’s not to love?”

Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves with the cast of 'Motown the Musical.' (c) Joan Marcus, 2014The show’s dramatic arc, says Semmes, emerges from “the pressure of the music biz” and Gordy’s dream of forging an independent label. “He was a former boxer, he worked in an automobile factory. But he saw this possibility in a changing time, and he went for it. The show begins and ends with Motown’s 25th anniversary.”

What Gordy and his fellow stewards of Motown formed was more than a sound. It was a complete performance package, right down to onstage style, decorum and, not least, appearance. The right look was fundamental. And that works for Semmes.

“It’s a journey of music and fashion,” she says. “I think I have 11 wigs, and – oh, I’m having a girlie moment – the gowns!”

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