By Sheryl Aronson
Hollywood Pantages Theatre:
“Motown wasn’t just about the music or entertainment, it provided a sound track of what was happening in society back in the 1960’s and 1970.” Miss Allison Semmes, who plays Diana Ross in the traveling cast of Motown, summed up my exact sentiments in an interview for The Hollywood 360.
Last Tuesday evening, I was dazzled by the performance of Motown, The Musical at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. With each classic song, with each divine dance step, with each legendary artist like Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye parading across the stage with such perfect renditions of their character’s personality and talent by each actor, a very integral part of America’s musical history caressed the audience’s hearts and souls.
Of course heading this entire crusade was the visionary man himself, Mr. Berry Gordy, performed with an unblemished accuracy by Julius Thomas. This actor has the distinct privilege of receiving notes from Mr. Gordy on a regular basis. “He is a perfectionist and doesn’t let anything slip,” said Julius. “He feels free to tell me how I might make the scene more effective. As Mr. Gordy always said, ‘Competition breeds a champion,’ and that makes me the best champion I can be.”
From the opening number where the Temptations and The Four Tops dual in a vocal and dancing showdown, Motown, The Musical throbs with an ecstatic pulse of non-stop delectable hits…over 40 decipherable songs from the Motown’s music publishing…and still there are many more your ears are aching to hear. “Motown first work-shopped 60 songs so the list is pared down. Mr. Gordy poured over as many hits as he could, but he had a hard time choosing. People might say they didn’t hear their favorite one but in the end, which one do you take out?” Julius commented.
Motown transports us back in time, to an era where racial barriers were being broken down by the Civil Right’s Movement and the philosophical outlook of the culture spoke of breaking free of the social norms. The story brilliantly depicted how the music of Motown acted as mirror reflecting the changing climate of the times. Gordy’s vision of establishing a community, a family of talent that was well schooled not only in presenting notable songs, but also teaching each artist how to exude sophistication and style as they interfaced with the public, was revolutionary.
“I really love the dignity, the class and sophistication Mr. Gordy brought to the stage for the black singer. It’s an image you don’t see anymore,” Allison said. “From the gowns alone and how the ladies carried themselves, there was so much information that went into show. Maxine Powell from the charm school polished the girl’s group’s craft, for example, how to get out of car like a lady. I love that full development of the artist building their careers to have longevity and an image where the young girls from Detroit can sing in England as well as at the Apollo.”
This musical extravaganza is not only a play but breaks down the theatrical 4th wall by fashioning a concert-like setting. When the young Michael Jackson hits the stage with the Jackson 5; a rush of adrenalin courses through your body because iconic history is being fore shadowed and when the Supremes croon Baby Love. The wonder of hearing Diana Ross’s creamy voice for the first time bursts forth; and when Marvin Gaye wails What’s Going On…your heart stops beating for a moment because he encapsulated the sentiments of our anti-war consciousness.
But the most remarkable entertaining moment of the night is when Diana Ross, Miss Allison Semmes, steps out into the audience like the glittering Diva sparkling in a Bob Mackie gown, silken black hair flowing down her back, gushing love for her fans, and asks a person from the audience to sing: “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand …Make this World a Better Place If You Can.” The supreme joy of participating in a Diana Ross’s concert flows throughout the theater which is then topped off by Ms. Ross asking everyone to swing their arms back and forth over their heads while she sings the lyrics.
“One of my favorite moments is when Diana connects with her audiences. I love to see how people receive it. People are shocked when I come up and ask them to sing. Each night something different happens,” Allison revealed.
Two hours and fifty-seven minutes of America’s Musical History surges across the stage. Both the leads, Allison Semmes and Julius Thomas immerse their entire beings into the portrayals of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross. The intense energy and dedication required is evident in both performances.
“There are certain moments I loose myself when channeling Diana and I don’t feel like Allison anymore. When I’m wearing a gown and my hair is all over my face, it transforms you, “Allison said.
“The challenge of every show I have is for 2 hours and 47minutes, I must stay completely invested as Berry Gordy. I have become immersed in this character and if for one moment Julius comes creeping in, I force myself back to being Berry Gordy.”
That evening the legendary gentleman, Berry Gordy sat in the audience with his best friend and musical super star, Smokey Robinson. As the classic tale of America’s musical history swept over the stage in a panorama of dance and song, did Motown, The Musical fulfill its mission? When Julius asked Smokey Robinson what he thought of his performance, Smokey smiled and replied,
“Oh yes, I saw my best friend up there on stage.”
Motown, The Musical is now playing at the Pantages Theater until June 7th. Go to: http://www.motownthemusical.com for more information.