Chicago native Allison Semmes is a classical singer by training—she has a bachelor's degree in opera from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—but she grew up with Motown in the house. "That was the popular music of [my parents'] time," she said. "That was like their Beyonce."
Now, Semmes, who grew up in Hyde Park, returns to Chicago to star as Diana Ross in the national tour of "Motown the Musical," which kicks off with a three-month run at the Oriental Theatre. Based on Motown founder Berry Gordy's autobiography, the production—which celebrated its one-year anniversary on Broadway April 14—explores the romance between Gordy and Ross through the rise of the hugely influential Detroit record label that launched the careers of Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and, of course, Ross. More than 50 iconic songs from the label—aptly nicknamed Hitsville USA—are featured.
In the Broadway production, Semmes originated the role of The Supremes' backup singer Florence Ballard after having worked as an understudy and swing in "The Book of Mormon" and touring with "The Color Purple." We called her during rehearsals to find out more.
'Motown the Musical'
Go: 7:30 p.m. April 22-July 13 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Tickets: $27-$125. 800-775-2000; broadwayinchicago.com
Music is in her blood: When my mother was growing up, her father pressed records. She said that her parents would invite musicians over to play in their basement where they had, like, a bar. So just from that, it trickled down when I was born [laughs] and I kept it going.
Her own favorite Motown artists: I love The Temptations; I'm just a sucker for harmony. And then, oh my God, the choreography was so smooth and—for lack of a better word—tempting. [Laughs.] And of course, Diana Ross. She had such a presence and style and sass about her.
Her costumes: Those gowns are amazing! … The intricacy of all the beading ... and how they catch the light on-stage ... You carry yourself differently when you have such stunning clothes on. And I love that we go through the '80s, so you get the best of each decade.
One thing she'd like to ask Diana Ross: 'What do you like to do when you're not on stage?' [Laughs.] She seems like such a vibrant, joyful person. Other than music, what is it that makes her excited about life? Is it tap dancing or, I don't know, crocheting? [Laughs.]
Her biggest challenge playing a living legend: I was a little nervous about whether people would say, 'Oh, she doesn't look like Diana Ross.' But at the same time, that's not the point. It's not impersonation, but it's moreso capturing that spirit and the essence of the character. So I go back to the things that I worked on in rehearsal that bring out her essence as opposed to being a spitting image. 'Cause there's only one Diana Ross.
How she shifted from playing Florence Ballard on Broadway to playing Diana Ross in the national tour: Mainly it's just knowing the story of each of the characters. I was familiar with Florence, but I didn't really know her story. I know what happens to her within the context of the show, but as soon as I got the role for Florence, I just studied the person through books. And especially catching their performances on YouTube. You can see the dynamics. With Diana, I had to study her movement and read her autobiography—'cause all of that influences everything. I watched some of her movies and interviews to see how she acts and speaks.
How her experience in "The Book of Mormon" helped her adjust: I was a swing, so I had to cover so many different characters. It was a fun challenge to keep them separate—to really get the intricacies of each one—and not make them all one person just because I'm playing them [all].
She geeked out about opening for Janelle Monae at the April 6 Choose Chicago event: When we stepped on the stage, it literally looked like a sea of people—there was over 5,000 people there. And at the end when we went out for bows, this energy and life and love rushed over me and it was like, 'This is what the icons feel.' It just gave me chills. I was on a high that whole night. And then afterward, we're walking through the crowd and people are shaking our hands and congratulating us and telling us that they'll come see the show.
Watching Janelle Monae perform: There's something timeless about her. She's not just a singer, but such a performer and crosses so many boundaries. I don't feel like she's directed to one specific crowd. [Laughs.] I was dancing with an older gentleman with white hair and we were both just twisting and bumping together, dancing to the music.
Where she likes to go now that she's back in town: When it's warm out, I head straight to the lake—Promontory Point and just anywhere on the lakeside. That water is just so gorgeous. I love the lake trails and all the parks. I like to check out the MCA during the summer when they have jazz. I also like the Blues Festival and [I'll go] wherever they have live music—my parents are Lyric Opera subscription holders, so every now and then, they'll surprise me and take me to the opera.
Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago