Flash back to the ’60s with Motown: The Musical at the Schuster

By Tim Walker

Photo: Judith Frankiln (center) as Martha Reeves and the cast of Mowtown: The Musical perform April 11-16 at the Schuster; photo: Joan Marcus

When you get right down to it, classic Motown songs encapsulate and define the 1960s:

Marvin Gaye’s 1968 classic “Heard it Through the Grapevine,”  “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas from 1964 (let’s pretend the abysmal cover versions by Van Halen, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger never happened), and “Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, released in 1965, the year I was born.

As we look back on those years now, the songs serve as the soundtrack to a generation as it matured and came to terms with itself, its government, and its place in the world during a time of often-violent social upheaval.

All of these classic songs, and so many more, emerged not from the music industry meccas of Los Angeles or New York City, but from the recording studios of Motown, a small record label based in Detroit of all places, and from the genius that founded that label—Berry Gordy, Jr.

Motown, Gordy, and all of the musicians on the label achieved unbelievable popular music success in the 1960s, placing 79 records in the Top Ten of the Billboard Hot 100 record chart between 1960 and 1969.

Now, Motown: The Musical, a jukebox musical that premiered on Broadway in April 2013 and tells the story of Gordy, the label, and many of its star performers, is coming to Dayton’s Schuster Center, April 11-16. The show promises to be a memorable evening filled with those fabulous songs and sure to have Dayton audiences… well, dancing in the streets.

In the show, Allison Semmes portrays the legendary Diana Ross, and the performance at the Schuster will mark her first time appearing on-stage in Dayton. Ross, well known to anyone with even a passing interest in American popular music, has been a recording industry icon for decades and got her start in the 1960s on the Motown label with her girl group, The Supremes. As her fame grew, Miss Ross also became romantically involved with Gordy—making the role in the musical an even more interesting one for singer and actress Semmes.

“It’s basically Berry Gordy’s story,” Semmes tells the Dayton City Paper. “It’s his account of how Motown came about. We see him as a young man in Detroit, and we see how he came out with Motown and how he met all the artists. We see the rise and the fall and then the rise again of this growing business that became the sound of America during those years. We get to hear music from all the Motown artists—there are over 60 songs from the Motown catalog in the show. So you get a lot of music and you get a lot of history and story as well.”

The show is based on Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved: the Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.” Popular Motown artists depicted in the show include the aforementioned Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson. The show received four nominations at the 67th Tony Awards.

“I’ve been playing the part now for three years,” Semmes says, “and what I love the most is that I get to play Diana from when she was 15 years old and just running up to Mr. Gordy to get to audition, and we see her evolution into becoming the Diana Ross. So it’s great to see that evolution not only in her own growth and as a part of the times, but we also see her relationship with Berry Gordy develop, both professionally and personally. That’s one thing that I didn’t really know about before joining the show.”

When asked if any parts of the show resonate with her, Semmes, who made her Broadway debut in The Book of Mormon, is quick to point out what she considers one of the highlights of Motown.

“I’ve always been a fan of Motown music,” she says. “My parents played the Supremes, and the Temptations, and the Four Tops. We always had music in the household and so I have always been familiar with it—it really is such a treat to sing that music. In the show, I would say ‘Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand’ is one of my favorites—not necessarily my favorite musically, but I love singing that song because I get a chance to break the fourth wall, and go out into the audience, and have volunteers sing with me—and at the end, something really special happens where I have everyone hold hands and sing together. And it’s always just such a magical moment.”

With a show like this, filled with the magic of memories and great Motown music, you can’t possibly go wrong.

Motown: The Musical takes the stage at 8 p.m., Tuesday-Friday, April 11-14; Saturday, April 15 at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 16 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. in the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets start at $30. For tickets or more information, please visit MotownTheMusical.com. or call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630.

 

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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