otown the Musical debuts in Detroit with one heck of a tale: The love story of two kids named Berry and Diana set against the backdrop of musical magic that defined a generation and a city. Sound familiar?
For some people seated in the audience Oct. 21, when Motown the Musical comes dancing off the street and into the Fisher Theatre, the curtain bearing the huge slanted "M" may trigger thoughts of the Motortown Revue of the '60s, when breathless teenagers of all shades pressed against the stage to marvel at musical idols not much older than they were.
The national touring company of Motown the Musical won't be as thrilling as those glorious days in your mind. But they're close.
An eye-popping spectacle of color, choreography and, of course, music, the stage adaptation of Berry Gordy's autobiography To Be Loved has dazzled full houses from Broadway to Chicago's Oriental Theatre and beyond. The crafty blending of nostalgia and youthful energy over 60-plus Motown classics (and two new songs, "Can I Close the Door" and "Hey Joe," co-written by Gordy for the musical) is tough to beat.
However, this engagement, the show's first appearance in Detroit, will be its litmus test. While other cities may cherish the Motown sound, we are the Motown sound. We know these people. We bumped into them at Farmer Jack, went to Duke Fakir's optician, volunteered on Martha Reeves' city council campaign. The house where it all began, Hitsville U.S.A., is mere blocks away from the Fisher on West Grand Boulevard. Forget Broadway: if Motown can make it here, it can make it anywhere.
"I was having a conversation with Mr. Gordy about that just last Thursday," relates Clifton Oliver, the handsome Floridian actor selected by Gordy to portray him in the road ensemble. "He was talking about the project and he said, 'You do understand that you are coming into the city where I founded this company? I lived in that city. People know who I am, how I act, how I sound.'
"I told him, 'The fact that you're a living legend is pressure enough, but going into your hometown is more than daunting.' But I'm ready for it. Because I worked hard to get where I am, Mr. Gordy approved of me and I believe they will be impressed by the overall project in Detroit."
Using the label's historic 1983 silver anniversary celebration, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, as its foundation, the show opens with a scintillating Temptations-Four Tops showdown and rarely pauses to catch its breath. The storyline, however, revolves around the professional and romantic relationship between Gordy and Diana Ross, played by Allison Semmes. "You do know that ours is a very watered-down version of what actually happened, right?" Oliver asks.
"It's definitely factual, and the one thing he (Gordy) continuously tells me is, 'I not only idolized Diana, but I loved her. So regardless of what you've heard, understand when I first saw this woman at her tender age, and I was a grown-ass man, I loved her. And I was willing to do whatever it took to get her to where I believed she could be.' Another thing that's really important is that when she decided to leave his label, to leave him, it broke his heart. She was Beyoncé to his Jay Z."
Discriminating Detroiters may amuse themselves trying to figure out which Motown hits were left out of the score. But the big production numbers-"Do You Love Me?" "Ball of Confusion" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" among them-should more than compensate. And prepare to be blown away by either Leon Outlaw Jr. or Reed L. Shannon, the two child actors who share the role of young Michael Jackson.
"They do an equal amount of shows, but their talents are very different," Oliver says. "One of them we call 'Young Beyoncé,' for no other reason than we simply think he's going to be a star. And the other is very like smooth and suave, like Keith Sweat. They are both incredibly talented for their age."
Clifton Oliver on becoming Berry Gordy in Motown the Musical
Oliver inhabits Motown maestro Berry Gordy's big shoes
"That's one of the stories I like to share," Oliver relates. "I auditioned for Marvin Gaye and got the part, but when I re-auditioned in front of Mr. Gordy he said, 'You're not Marvin Gaye. You're Berry Gordy.' I had been trying to be all sexy, working out, wanting to be Marvin-and suddenly I had to reevaluate everything and figure out how to make that work! But he was correct: I was the Berry Gordy of the show."
However, Oliver was under the watchful eye of the real Berry Gordy for months as he learned the part-and developed strong feelings about the legend he represents.
"It is interesting, man, that so many people have mixed thoughts about Mr. Gordy," says Oliver, 38. "He's this, he's that, he's a bad man, whatever. But the truth is, he's passionate. And as a Black man, I understand that passion. Sometimes in order to get what you want, you have to do what you gotta do. But Mr. Gordy will tell you, 'I never lied, and I never cheated anyone. I told them the facts.'
"And at 84, Mr. Gordy is sharp as a tack. If he hasn't written it down or doesn't have video of it, he remembers it. We had a conversation recently and he was giving me notes on my performance. He was pointing out nuances, things I didn't even realize he would notice. 'OK, you know when you were snapping your fingers here? I never would have done that. I probably would have done this.' He's very aware. That's how he was able to have all those stars come out of his label."
A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Oliver can't remember a time he didn't want to be an entertainer. "I was always singing and dancing around the house as a kid, putting on shows and charging people like 25 cents to come hear me sing," he recalls. He has played Simba on Broadway in The Lion King on and off for the past 12 years, as well as performing in Wicked and In the Heights, toured nationally in Rent and Ragtime and appeared on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Oliver says he grew up listening to the Motown sound through his parents, but being immersed in the music every day provided him with a revelation.
"The funny thing is, I never realized the lyrics of these songs are so important," he observes. "Prime example: The songs Smokey (Robinson) wrote for Diana are very suggestive, and you don't even realize it because you get caught up in the sound. But all of a sudden you're like, 'Wait a minute! Diana's talking about sex!' And Marvin with all the political stuff, with the harmonies and background vocals. That was the genius of Motown. It changed the nation because of its words, but it did so in such a refined, sophisticated way."
Oliver is eager to spend several weeks in the place where that genius was nurtured-except for one thing. "We keep going to cold cities," the Floridian laments. "Chicago was cold, San Francisco was cold and, by the time we get to Detroit, I'm sure it's going to be cold there, too."
Allison Semmes on the role of Diana Ross in Motown the Musical
Semmes tackles Diana Ross' 'supreme' talent
Allison Semmes, the Chicago-born, operatically trained actress playing Diana Ross in Motown the Musical, was handpicked by Berry Gordy to embody his muse, biggest star and endless love from coast to coast in the national touring company. Now she's making her first visit to Detroit-birthplace of Ross, Gordy and Motown-where there are people who actually know all three intimately.
"Oh, my gosh," Semmes ponders with a laugh. "I'm not going to lie, I will be a little nervous about it. It's the 'Home of … . ' It's the truth of it all.
"But at the same time, I'm so excited to, oooh, just to be in the vicinity of where it all happened. If anything, I'm just going to do the best I can, try and stay as authentic to the story and the artist as possible."
Semmes, who in true Ross fashion changes gowns more frequently than a runway model during the performance (and, yes, leads the audience in a swaying singalong to "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)"), has reason to be doubly excited. She has appeared on Broadway in brief stints, but this tour represents her potential breakthrough-the first national exposure as a headliner in a splashy, high-profile production.
"I did one nonequity tour, The Color Purple, but it was a 'bus-and-truck' tour," she says. "We visited smaller cities and did a lot of day trips. This is completely different! The workload is just as much if not more, but we get a chance to inhabit big cities for several weeks, really reach out. I'm lovin' that."
Born into a musical family, Semmes performed in the Chicago Children's Choir and eventually earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois and a master's from New York University, both in vocal studies. "For a minute I started to really learn and appreciate opera, classical singing and arias," she says. "But Broadway was the dream! So I moved to New York and started auditioning. But yeah, at one point I did want to be the next Kathleen Battle."
Unlike her co-starring counterpart Clifton Oliver, who plays Gordy and has taken acting cues from The Man himself, Semmes never has met Ross. "But I have studied her music, her life, read her autobiography, to try to get inside her a little," Semmes says. "And I have had the opportunity to work with Mr. Gordy on several occasions, and he gave me so much insight. He's just so connected to not only the show, but to us as well."
The Motown connection the audience has to believe is the chemistry between Semmes and Oliver. "It has to be there, but I think it's easy because Clifton is such a warm person and we play so close together onstage," says Semmes. "He's easy to love.
"What's interesting with theater is that sometimes the onstage can bleed offstage. So the relationship we portray onstage, sometimes it's … I don't know, it's difficult to explain." She doesn't call him "Black," the pet name between Ross and Gordy in the musical, "but I do call him 'Boo,'" she concedes. "Those cheekbones! Hello?"