You could say that Allison Semmes has always been a dreamgirl. Although she’s been playing Diana Ross in Motown the Musical for two years on a U.S. tour, she’s been singing like a Supreme ever since she was a little girl in Chicago.
After seeing The Lion King and Aida on a trip to New York with the Chicago Children’s Choir, she was hooked. Semmes received a majority of her musical training in church choir and then studied opera at the University of Illinois. “At the time, I thought I wanted to be an opera singer,” she says. “But in the back of my mind, New York and Broadway was the ultimate dream for me.”
After studying musical performance at NYU for two years, she got her first gig with an early production of Dreamgirls, Then, Semmes says, her career really got rolling. She played Squeak in the national tour of The Color Purple and then had her Broadway debut as a swing in The Book of Mormon. Following that, she landed the role of Florence Ballard in Motown and also performed as the understudy for Diana Ross.
When Motown went off-Broadway and began the national tour, Semmes took the lead role of Diana Ross. Though traveling with the show for two years has had its challenges (living out of a suitcase and staying healthy), Semmes says she couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity and feels like she’s reliving the past — when Motown stars performed across the country in the ’60s.
“Everyone knows Motown,” she says. “I love continuing that legacy of music and that story. I love that it has music everyone can relate to, regardless of class or color or ethnicity.”
Motown is based on the autobiography of Berry Gordy: To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. It tells the story of Gordy’s road to success, the creation of his record label, and his relationship with Diana Ross and includes 66 songs — most of which are hits from the ’60s and ’70s.
“I think the heart of the show is not only that it’s very unifying but also Motown in particular broke a lot of barriers,” Semmes says. “It wasn’t just black music. Even though Motown has over 60 hits, you not only get to see the history and formation of this independent music company but you also see the social changes that are happening in America at the same time. So it's about how music stays relevant to the social changings of America.”
One of Semmes’ favorite lines in the show is said by the character of Marvin Gaye. He says, “I don’t want to just reflect the times; I want to affect the times.” The song “Love Child” illustrates how these songs cover the social issues that were controversial back then. Semmes says Gordy was a visionary who wanted to keep his artists going along with the changing times.
Some people have also said that Motown is a jukebox play where the cast simply performs all the hit songs, but Semmes says there are actually many layers to the musical. During the song “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” Semmes breaks the fourth wall and interacts with the audience by picking out a volunteer to participate in the show, which is rarely done on Broadway.
She also says that some people expect the cast to be exact impersonators of the stars and can be critical by comparing them to the original performers. But the creators and directors instructed them to focus on capturing the essence of the person instead of trying to exactly imitate their every voice inflection and gesture.
“That helps me keep my sanity, because there is only one Diana Ross,” Semmes says. “So I get a chance to interpret her through my craft but also stay true to what makes her the icon.”
One other thing that stands out about the show, Semmes says, are the costumes.
“Motown is not just a slice of life but a journey from the ’50s all the way to the ’80s,” she says. “So you get a chance to not only see the music changing with the times but you also see how the costumes and fashion are changing as well.”
Aside from the hit songs, fun costumes, and storytelling, Motown inspires audiences to follow their dreams, as Gordy did. Semmes hopes that the show is not just entertaining and educational but also inspiring for everyone, just as it has changed her life.
“I literally feel like anything is possible,” she says. “Even though we are almost two years into this, this still feels so surreal, because it really is a dream come true for me to travel and perform this music and play this character. It’s very affirming that if you really just go after what you want, it’s possible to achieve it.”
Motown will be playing in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center first and then going north to West Palm Beach at the Kravis Center. Details are below.
February 2-7, 2016
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Click here to buy tickets.
February 9-14, 2016
Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach
Click here to buy tickets.