*It’s not difficult to find songstress/actress Allison Semmes these days. Just follow the hot national touring trail of Broadway’s “Motown The Musical” and catch Semmes’ riveting portrayal of iconic singer Diana Ross.
The stage production, which stars Semmes, musically and artistically chronicles the epic rise of Motown Records from its humble 1959 beginnings in Detroit, to how it became the world’s most storied record label. The musical comes to life with captivating portrayals of the label’s legendary singers and musicians that helped put Motown on the map, all told through the vision of the master architect, Berry Gordy, Jr.
Since the beginning of the national tour in April, 2014 in Chicago, which just happens to be Semmes’ hometown, audiences of all ethnicities across America have left the play enthralled by its high-octane production. Semmes renders singing and acting performances that give audiences an incredible look at Ross with The Supremes, her contributions to the elevation of the record label, and her professional and personal interactions with Gordy.
“I did a lot of research when I was preparing for the role, and even now, I will go back and listen to her songs or flip through her autobiography or study her on YouTube,” said Semmes. “I just want to keep remembering who she was, and still is, as an artist and as a person. I don’t want to necessarily imitate her, but I want to capture the essence of her unique style and sweet and distinct voice.”
While performing as Ross can be a pressurized role, Semmes has positively channeled such pressure to be the best Diana Ross possible on stage. She admits, however, when the production played in Detroit last year, the birthplace of Motown Records, Ross and Gordy, it was a bit daunting.
“There was a lot of pressure on Opening Night,” recalled Semmes, who knew that the stage production was less than a mile from Motown’s Records’ original and historic world’s headquarters/studio, and less than five miles from where Ross grew up. “But honesty, all I can do is my best to help tell the story and trust that the story Mr. Berry Gordy envisioned will be perceived well by audiences, which it has been. However, there’s a line in the play that I’ve adopted to stay pressure-free. It’s where I, as Diana Ross, say ‘I ain’t worry about no pressure, Berry. If you can think it, I can do it.’ ”
Semmes praises the work of the entire national touring cast of “Motown The Musical.”
“I love working with so many extremely talented actresses, actors, and singers,” Semmes said. “It’s definitely not just a one of two person show; it’s an ensemble that brilliantly portrays the many stories and artists that made Motown what it is. We are all loving that audiences across the country are loving ‘Motown The Musical.’ ”
Growing up in Hyde Park on Chicago’s Southside, a young Semmes’ love for singing took many directions, inclusive of with the Chicago Children’s Choir. Semmes, who performed with the choir from the age of six to 18, developed a strong voice and love for classical music. With the choir, she performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and performed abroad.
Singing in her church choir was also beneficial to Semmes’ development as a vocalist, and thanks to her parents’ vast collections of albums in jazz, blues, R&B, and heavy doses of the Motown Sound, she was able to listen to the vocal stylings and music of many artists.
Yet, heading off to college, classical music charted the way for her to earn a bachelor of music degree in classical voice from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She subsequently earned a master’s degree in music with a concentration in musical theater from New York University (NYU)-Steinhardt.
“I wanted to be an opera singer. I wanted to be the next Kathleen Battle,” Semmes said, with a laugh. “The color to her voice is so expressive and so graceful.”
After college, however, Semmes headed to New York, where she began her professional stage career with “Dreamgirls.” Other musicals have included “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “The Wiz,” and “The Color Purple” (national tour). In addition to “Motown The Musical,” her other Broadway credit is “The Book of Mormon.”
Semmes is humbled by her national starring role in “Motown The Musical.”
“This has been the opportunity and dream of a lifetime,” said Semmes. “However, it’s really about this special man, Berry Gordy, who had an American dream and $800. Along the way, he discovered and launched the careers of Motown artists. By doing so, he not only paved the way for artists today, but created a voice in music that also evoked social change.”
Semmes continued to speak on Gordy.
“He believes and trusts in us (the cast) to tell his story night-after-night, all across America,” said Semmes. “He motivates us to not get comfortable, but to reach for perfection, just like he motivated his Motown artists. He’s been a great driving force for me to keep bettering myself.”
As “Motown The Musical” continues its national tour that will run well into 2016, Semmes stands on her faith in God to sustain her, by remembering Romans 12: 12.
“It keeps me going and is a reminder to keep my faith locked into God” said Semmes. “This business can be crazy, filled with challenges and obstacles, but I rejoice in hope, remain patient in the affliction, and continue steadfastly in prayer.”