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'Motown the Musical' rolls into Baltimore

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Ready for a brand new beat? "Motown the Musical" is about to stir up memories at the Hippodrome.

The message was loud, clear and irresistible: "Calling out around the world: Are you ready for a brand-new beat?"

That opening line from the Martha and the Vandellas 1964 single "Dancing in the Street" still generates an emphatic response, conjuring up an era that was all about brand and new and beat — Motown.

Founded in Detroit by Berry Gordy in 1959, Motown Records became a vital part of the history of American pop music, while also leaving quite an imprint on society and politics. That legacy fuels "Motown the Musical," which ran on Broadway for 19 months and pays its first visit to Baltimore this week as part of a national tour that has been going on for nearly two years.

"It's exciting for us to have the show in Baltimore," says Kevin McCollum, who, along with Gordy and Sony Music Entertainment CEO Doug Morris, is a producer of the musical. "I can't be there because we open the same night in London."

The London production is one indication that the show has legs; a return to Broadway this summer for an 18-week engagement is another. Although the initial New York run didn't achieve mega-hit status, even lukewarm reviewers were known to acknowledge getting caught up in the nostalgia fest.

The show looks back at Gordy's career, with his extraordinary record of launching stars.

"What Berry did was remarkable and singular," says McCollum, a Tony Award-winner for "In the Heights," "Avenue Q" and "Rent." "He lived the American dream, going from the streets of Detroit to building a revolution, socially and artistically. Berry didn't produce 'race music' or 'black music,' but music created by black artists for everybody."

Boiling all of that down for a theatrical vehicle took some doing.

"The first draft had 95 songs in it," McCollum says. "I said we can't turn this into 'Nicholas Nickleby.' 'Motown' really should be a miniseries. There's such a large group of artists — the Temptations, the [Four] Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells. It just doesn't stop. That's what's exciting to hear."

The final version of the show hardly stints on the music.

"There are over 60 songs," says Allison Semmes, who has the role of Diana Ross. "A lot of them are just snippets. If we stretched out every snippet, we'd be at the theater for four hours."

Semmes is a veteran of the Broadway production, having played Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes. With that assignment came another — understudy to the actress playing Diana Ross.

"So you better believe I was standing in the wings every day watching so that when the opportunity presented itself to audition for Diana, I would be ready," Semmes says.

That opportunity came when the national tour launched in May 2014. There was something fitting in Semmes moving from Ballard to Ross in "Motown the Musical." Ballard was the singer who famously objected when Gordy put Ross into the spotlight. (That whole drama inspired another, more fictionalized musical, "Dreamgirls.")

"Oh my goodness, Florence was such a multilayered artist," Semmes says. "She was the power voice of the Supremes. But Diana Ross had the personality for the direction the Supremes were headed. You can imagine all the emotions Florence was feeling. That was a heavy role for me, but I got to get into that journey, and I think it has made me a more down-to-earth Diana."

To conjure up a musical artist whose every song and practically every move will be familiar to many in the audience can be daunting.

"Playing a living legend means so much pressure," Semmes says. "But the [show's creative team] relieved a lot of that pressure when they told us they didn't want impersonations of these characters. They wanted the essence. I studied all the clips on, you know, YouTube university. There is so much footage of the Supremes. But I'm still Allison playing Diana."

For Jarran Muse, the task is to bring a no-longer-living legend back to life onstage — Gaye, who was also Gordy's brother-in-law.

"I love Marvin Gaye's music," Muse says. "The best I can do is try to do him justice every time I perform. I tell you, it's always tricky because you know people are coming to the show wanting to hear the music they heard on the vinyl. I feel like Motown is part of everyone's life, even if you weren't born in the '50s or '60s."

Motown isn't just about great tunes and catchy lyrics.

"This show reminds you that, yes, there was a place called Motown, but it's more than that," McCollum says. "It also was music that could create political and social change."

Motown provided part of the soundtrack to the Vietnam War, the riots in American cities and much more. Songs reflected what was going on, delivered messages that struck nerves.

"It really is full circle now," Semmes says. "We were doing the show in St. Louis when Ferguson was happening. Tensions were high. As Diana, I was going out into the audience asking people to 'Reach Out and Touch Someone's Hand.' It is so surreal that history is repeating itself today. But I really believe music is a unifier."

Adds McCollum: "Motown songs help us to reflect on our own day. They show you can challenge the world with an art form, not with guns or anger."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Motown the Musical" opens Tuesday and runs through March 13 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30 to $190. Call 800-982-2787, or go to baltimorehippodrome.com.

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