The Hitsville USA Ensemble!

The Hitsville USA Ensemble!

*For those who lived the emergence of Motown, this show has all the ingredients for an emotional return. For those who learned about Motown through their parents, or are just now beginning to experience it, you’re in for quite a history lesson. Fresh off its successful Broadway run, “Motown The Musical” is the highly anticipated production based on the book, “To Be Loved,” by Berry Gordy, Jr. and his dream to change the face of popular music by developing a music label from which some of the most iconic artists of the 21st century would get their start.

This production, which has a limited six-week engagement at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, takes audiences behind the scenes of some of the world’s most iconic hits; telling the stories of how they came about; the issues the country was experiencing at the time, and the personal setbacks and triumphs Gordy, his artists, and his music label was going through.

Opening night found some of Hollywood’s elite on the red carpet that came out to support the colorful production including celebrities such as Toni Braxton, Leon Isaac-Kennedy, Scherrie Payne (who was co-lead singer of The Supremes from 1973-1977), Sidney Poitier, Kym Whitley, Kenny Lattimore, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, Jr. himself. But not all celebrities walked the red carpet. Looking around the packed house you easily recognized some familiar faces; such as former “Entertainment Tonight” host, Mary Hart, and Stefan Kendal Gordy aka Redfoo, the youngest son of the music mogul.

But the biggest revelations of the evening came from the production itself, and the depths to which audiences got to experience things they may have only previously heard about in the headlines, or suspected through gossip. The biggest of which is the love affair between Berry Gordy and his musical protégé, Diana Ross.

Julius Thomas III as Berry Gordy, Jr. (L) and Allison Semmes as Diana Ross (R)

Julius Thomas III as Berry Gordy, Jr. (L) and Allison Semmes as Diana Ross (R)

For decades, the public suspected the two had an affair; and through the years pieced things together as they realized the affair had produced a child now known as singer, Rhonda Ross. So now, to be able to witness the behind the scenes details of the romance is a welcomed treat.

In the starring roles of the touring production, Berry Gordy, Jr. and Diana Ross is played with a fierceness by two incredibly capable actors named Julius Thomas III and Allison Semmes respectively. We are introduced to Ross when she — along with group members Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard as The Primettes — approach Motown when they are seniors in High School.

It doesn’t take long to see the attraction between Gordy and “the girl with the big eyes” who didn’t take the hesitation of the older man to sign them before they finished high school seriously. We witness a persistent Diana, with a willingness to “do anything” to become a part of the record label – including menial jobs and doing studio work for the  other artists whenever needed.

As “Diana,” Allison Semmes’ characterization hits all the marks. Diana Ross is a force that no one can easily emulate, but Semmes does a great job as a substitute. We are seduced by her sexuality, playfulness, charm, and flair as she takes the audience through her rise to the top (much to the envy and dismay of her fellow girl-group members) from her teen years.

But it is the revelation of Gordy and Ross’ first night together as lovers that will come as a surprise (I actually heard people in the audience say, “I can’t believe he put that in the play”) when it turned out that his male parts didn’t perform as he had hoped. Berry would later share the incident in an interview with a journalist at Rolling Stone magazine in 2013 this way:

“That first night, I tried to make love to her and it didn’t happen. And that was like the most embarrassing thing of my life,” he said. “When you think of someone as a princess, the queen of your life, your mind plays tricks on you. And, of course, she made a joke out of it, and one which we use in the play. It’s like: ‘Well you could look at it this way: At least you have power over everything else.'”

And he was speaking the truth. The scene did actually end up in the play. And in addition to Diana’s “little joke” about the experience, we also get to hear the emergence of a song (though it’s not clear if this was a song being repeated or originated by the incident) that would later become a big hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, as Diana sits on the side of the bed saying the words,

Like the sweet morning dew, I took one look at you, 

And it was plain to see, You were my destiny. 

With arms open wide, I threw away my pride 

I’ll sacrifice for you

Dedicate my life to you

We recognize the song today as, “You’re All I Need to Get By.”

And as an actor who, on this night, was performing with Berry Gordy only rows away in the audience, Semmes deserved to feel great throughout; but especially in her ultimate ‘Diana Ross moment,’ when she asks for audience participation while singing “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and everyone in the audience does so, with linked hands held high; not to mention the volunteer who got up and helped her sing a portion of the song.

It was a moment right out of a real Diana Ross concert!

Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson

Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson

In an interview with Dustin Fitzharris, Rhonda Ross says her father had talked about bringing his story to the stage for years. And when she was asked what it was like to see the love story between her parents unfold on stage she responded, “I’ve been asked that question a lot. I thought I was going to cry the whole time,” she says about the anticipation, but continues, “But I was so moved and full of joy. The joy superseded the tears, you know.”

Rhonda echoes the same sentiments Gordy did when he talked about Diana to another character in the play: her feelings for her audience. “She cares about nothing more than giving her audience what they came to see,” says Rhonda, when asked what she has taken away from her mother’s professionalism. “There’s something that she has that cares, in a very deep way, for everyone in that audience.”

But as great as Semmes was in her portrayal of Diana Ross, the performance didn’t overshadow the other tough role; that of the icon himself. And Julius Thomas III deserves a Tony nomination for his performance. Not only does his strikingly good looks resemble the young Gordy (who has aged amazingly well even to this day, at 85); but he appears to effortlessly display the essence of the man; the different moods and levels of the music mogul.

Julius Thomas III as Motown CEO, Berry Gordy, Jr.

Julius Thomas III as Motown CEO, Berry Gordy, Jr.

The persuasive Berry who convinces his rigid sister who was responsible for the purse strings of the family, to give him the loan to start his label. Berry the visionary who knew what he wanted that label to accomplish from the beginning (he would at times use the imagery of his time in the automobile industry; where he would see the framework of a car go in one door, and the fine finish of it come out another). The unyielding Berry, who fought with lawyers, artists, and others as he worked to grow his label and keep struggling artists such as The Supremes, who didn’t have a hit for five years before “Where Did Our Love Go?” and the stubborn but humbled Berry Gordy who had to be talked into attending the Motown 25 celebration, where all of the artists he had developed returned to pay homage to him (Remember, that’s where Michael Jackson first showed us the moon walk).

Many in the audience also learned how instrumental a young Smokey Robinson (played beautifully by Jesse Nager) was in the early stages of the Motown label. We saw how he and Gordy became not only best friends, but confidantes in the process. Gordy spoke of how impressed he had been with the young Robinson; who he approached after his group at the time, The Five Chimes, had been rejected by Jackie Wilson’s manager.

A really cute moment in the production would show that Gordy had eyes for the only girl in the group, Claudette Rogers, which Smokey graciously, but immediately, put a halt to.

She would later become Robinson’s first wife, Claudette Robinson.

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye

Gordy admired Robinson’s eagerness to learn and grow. When Smokey would approach the leader with songs, and Gordy would give him notes like, “Go and listen to the radio” – Smokey would come back with results; like an answer to the song that had reached #1 on the Billboard pop and R&B singles charts in 1958 called, “Get A Job,” by The Silhouettes. Smokey came back with a quirky titled song in response called, “I Got A Job.”

And wouldn’t you know it, Berry Gordy produced it and made it a hit! (Listen to the original song at the end of this article).

Jarran Muse kills it as Marvin Gaye. The singer/activist certainly gave Berry Gordy a run for his money when it came to what songs he was going to do. And Muse brought many in the audience to the verge of tears at several points, most notably when he performed a snippet of Gaye’s socially conscious and timeless song, “What Going On” (see photo above) especially in light of the issues the country faces today with Black Lives Matter, and the recent events in Baltimore.

It will probably come as no surprise that the audience went nuts when “The Jackson Five” came on the scene. Though there are three actors cast in the role of young Michael Jackson, at this performance Leon Outlaw, Jr. performed the role (to sheer perfection, I might add). Several of the ensemble actors perform multiple roles; and young Outlaw also did well as young Berry and Stevie Wonder (another awesome performance as it is no easy task to prop your head the way Stevie does and look authentic. Kudos also to the older Stevie Wonder as well, played by Elijah Ahmad Lewis).

But as Michael Jackson, this kid was so on point. Not only did Outlaw have that pure, authentic voice we recall in young Michael so well; but he had the spirit of the youngster down pat. The first sign of which was evident in the scene where he and his brothers had finished their audition for Gordy and “Michael” runs over to the CEO and excitedly asks, “Are you gonna sign us?”

Another incredible moment for the audience was that familiar “purple hat” performance (see photo below) on the Ed Sullivan show; where at the beginning, the pose of the group alone, send many into a frenzy.

"The Jackson Five"

“The Jackson Five”

The cast of more than 35 marvelous members also features Erick Buckley, Patrice Covington, Jamarice Daughtry, Tamar Davis, Lynorris Evans, Melanie Evans, Anissa Felix, Devon Goffman, Jennie Harney, Rod Harrelson, Robert Hartwell, Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr., Trisha Jeffrey, Jarvis B. Manning, Jr., Krisha Marcano, Marq Moss, Rashad Naylor, Chadaè Nichol, Ramone Owens, Nicholas Ryan, Jamison Scott, Joey Stone, Doug Storm, Martina Sykes and Galen J. Williams.

Many wonder why Gordy would ever let such a good thing go. And the mogul, with an estimated net worth (at least before this production) of $350M, told Rolling Stone in that previously mentioned interview:

“I’m in heaven. I’m not sure I want to do this again, but it is a dream come true for me. It’s a labor of love; everything I’ve done. [The musical] is probably the last thing I’ll do.”

Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, Jr.

Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, Jr.

“Motown The Musical” runs two hours and forty minutes (with one 15-minute intermission) and features more than 40 classic hits. The absolutely amazing direction of the production is by Charles Randolph Wright.

Choreography for “Motown The Musical” is by Patricia Wilcox (A Night with Janis Joplin) and Warren Adams (Toy Story); scenic design by David Korins (Bring It On: The Musical, Annie), costume design by Tony Award® nominee ESosa (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, “Project Runway”), lighting design by Tony Award® winner Natasha Katz (Once, Sister Act), sound design by Tony Award® nominee Peter Hylenski (Rock of Ages, The Scottsboro Boys), projection design by Daniel Brodie (Jekyll and Hyde), hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe (Memphis) and casting by Telsey + Company.

“Motown The Musical’s” arrangements and orchestrations are by Grammy and Tony Award® nominee Ethan Popp (Rock of Ages), who also serves as music supervisor in reproducing the classic “Sound of Young America,” with co-orchestrations and additional arrangements by Tony Award® nominee Bryan Crook (“Smash”) and dance arrangements by Zane Mark (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).

 “Motown The Musical” is produced by Tony Award® winning producer Kevin McCollum (Rent, In the Heights, Avenue Q), Chairman and CEO of SONY Music Entertainment Doug Morris and Motown founder Berry Gordy.

The show is at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, for a limited six-week engagement through Sunday, June 7, 2015. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 1pm & 6:30pm.

“Motown The Musical” is recommended for ages 10 and up. (Children under 5 will not be admitted to the theatre. All patrons must have a ticket, regardless of age.)

 Individual tickets for “Motown The Musical” start at $25.  Prices are subject to change without notice.

Tickets are now on sale and are available for purchase at www.HollywoodPantages.com or www.Ticketmaster.com, by phone at 800-982-2787, and at the Hollywood Pantages Box Office (6233 Hollywood Boulevard) which is open daily at 10am except for Holidays.

For more information on Motown The Musical, visit www.MotownTheMusical.com.

Listen to “I Got A Job” By Smokey Robinson and The Miracles  below.