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updated: 4/17/2014 3:20 PM

Chicago actress steps into Diana Ross' heels in 'Motown the Musical'

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  • Allison Semmes, a Chicago native, stars as Diana Ross in the North American tour of "Motown the Musical" at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

      Allison Semmes, a Chicago native, stars as Diana Ross in the North American tour of "Motown the Musical" at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

  • Brandon Victor Dixon stars as Motown founder and songwriter Berry Gordy (center) in the 2013 Broadway production of "Motown The Musical." The national tour of the show launches in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre.

      Brandon Victor Dixon stars as Motown founder and songwriter Berry Gordy (center) in the 2013 Broadway production of "Motown The Musical." The national tour of the show launches in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre.
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Charl Brown, Brandon Victor Dixon, Valisia LeKae and Bryan Terrell Clark starred in the 2013 Broadway production of "Motown The Musical." The national tour of the show launches in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre for a 12-week run starting Tuesday, April 22.

      Charl Brown, Brandon Victor Dixon, Valisia LeKae and Bryan Terrell Clark starred in the 2013 Broadway production of "Motown The Musical." The national tour of the show launches in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre for a 12-week run starting Tuesday, April 22.
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Video: 'Motown The Musical' montage

 
 

Actress Allison Semmes is a Chicagoan through and through, but she has largely built her theater career away from the city. Now, however, she is returning home in a big way by starring as legendary singer Diana Ross in the national tour of "Motown The Musical" at Chicago's Oriental Theatre.

"This is such a dream to come back to my hometown and with this music," said Semmes, whose previous Broadway credits include "The Book of Mormon" and starring as former Supremes singer Florence Ballard (and understudying Diana Ross) in "Motown The Musical."

"I really became familiar with the Motown sound growing up, and I come back to Chicago and my parents are pulling out their original vinyl records and I'm amazed because we're singing all these songs in the show."

Semmes' upbringing was a musical one, and she credits her time singing in the Chicago Children's Chorus, in school at Kenwood Academy and in church at Greater Institutional AME for helping to build her artistic foundations.

Semmes furthered her education studying classical music and opera at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and then at New York University where she switched to musical theater. Regional productions of shows like "Dreamgirls" and "Bubbling Brown Sugar" followed after she graduated, as well as a non-Equity tour of "The Color Purple."

But now Semmes is relishing the chance to star in her first professional national tour with the luxury of extra rehearsal time. It's a contrast to joining the cast "Motown The Musical" on Broadway as a replacement.

"I really didn't have much time to work and discover Diana on my own. I was just thrown in with a few understudy rehearsals," Semmes said, happy to be working with the entire "Motown The Musical" creative team. "They gave me the freedom to discover the role on my own as well as giving me great direction to capture her essence as well."

Semmes also got a lot of advice from Motown Records founder Berry Gordy in a two-hour one-on-one session where she could ask practically anything.

"Honestly his memory is so sharp and clear. He remembers so much about the formation of Motown and the sessions right down to the vowels of the singers," Semmes said. "(Gordy) was overflowing with information and it was amazing to hear from the living legend himself -- straight from the source."

Semmes also noted the irony of performing in "Motown The Musical" when several of the artists depicted in the show will also be playing concerts at the Chicago Theatre at the same time. For instance, Gladys Knight and The Temptations featuring Dennis Edwards play Friday, May 9, while Diana Ross will be playing two shows on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 29 and 30.

"I would love it if they could come and stop by," Semmes said, adding that her stage manager has already told her that she had better not call in sick the nights that the original Motown legends are performing. "It would be a dream if I could meet (Diana Ross) because I've spent so much time studying her and following her."

And Semmes is also happy to be a part of "Motown The Musical" itself, since it highlights how pop music helped change American culture and beliefs.

"It wasn't just music -- it crossed so many social boundaries and barriers and it really was America's music," Semmes said. "I hope that the people who come to experience and remember this music will see how it unified us like it did back then. Everyone could relate to the songs and the stories in the songs, regardless of who or where you came from."

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