Allison Semmes talks playing Diana Ross and more

Posted at 2:10 PM, Mar 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-18 08:12:44-04

Allison Semmes is playing Diana Ross in Motown the Musical at Wharton Center for the Performing Arts this weekend. Check out our Q & A with her below! 

CINDY KANGAS: Did you have a passion for music and theatre growing up?

ALLISON SEMMES: Well I grew up in a musical family. There was always music being played in the household: Jazz, Classical, Motown. I sang throughout my childhood in the Chicago Children's Choir and in church. I studied opera at University of Illinois in Champaign. After that, I realized musical theater on Broadway was for me, so I moved to New York, went to N.Y.U. for two years and studied musical theater. Then, I started auditioning for everything possible.

KANGAS: On your website, I noticed you singing songs by Chaka Kahn and Mary J Blige. Were they your heroes growing up?  Do you have favorite Motown artists?

SEMMES: There are many different genres that I like. I love Chaka Kahn and of course funk, but also jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald. She taught me everything about being a jazz vocalist. Diana, of course, her performance and her stage presence. Barbra Streisand inspired me with her storytelling, passion and songs.

KANGAS: Talk me through your Motown audition process?

SEMMES: All the auditions I’ve attended have been in New York and I have agent that works with me to book appointments. I go to the auditions with a song ready. I like to prepare for it. A good audition resource for young actors and musicians is 

KANGAS: Barry Gordy and the music of Motown mean so much to people, especially to the people of Michigan, what has been the audience response so far?

SEMMES: We are so well received. In East Lansing especially, being it's so close to the home base of Motown.  The audience is intergenerational, sometimes we even see people that have not even heard of Motown. So many audience members grew up with the music. It’s unifying races and generations. It reflects a turbulent time in America and now it's full circle.

KANGAS: How do you stay energized for the show? Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I do have some pre-show rituals. I do yoga stretches and warm up my voice.  I keep it lubricated throughout the show. Honestly, when the show starts, it’s literally like being shot out of a cannon. We just flow with the show momentum. After warming up, we just go for it.  The show is so energizing.

KANGAS: Tell me about the choreography.

For sure a lot of time and energy went into it. When I was on Broadway playing Florence Ballard I was dancing a lot more than the Diana Ross character. We have several dance captains and lots of cast rehearsals. The choreography is tight and it's clean. I see the company dancers doing full body stretches before every show. The Supremes, and truly all Motown groups, performed in the age of the step touch. There are so many different styles of the step touch. 

SEMMES: You do an amazing job of portraying Diana Ross. Did you study her mannerisms and performance style?

SEMMES: There's so much footage online. It’s great to live in the age of information. I studied a lot of her footage on YouTube, tons of her with the Supremes. I watched a lot of her movies and interviews to see her mannerisms. The wonderful thing is, the directors gave us the freedom to not necessarily do an impersonation, but to capture their essence. There can only be one Diana. 

KANGAS: You have the most amazing wardrobe in this show. Can you tell me about it and if you have a favorite?

SEMMES: Oh my gosh. I love it because Motown goes from the forties to the eighties. So I get all of that yummy fashion for Diana. My favorite gown is from when I step out as Diana for her first solo performance. The white gown from Reach Out And Touch is white and sparkly. There's a slit in the front and dips down. It's very glamorous and I can move in it.  I wear another red dress that has to weigh about fifteen pounds with beads hand stitched into it.

KANGAS: You’ve been touring with Motown since April 4, 2014.  Where do you see yourself when the show ends?

SEMMES: My gosh. I love singing and interpreting music. I'm a songstress. This show has also opened up the road of acting and portraying characters. I’d love, love, love to continue singing my own music that has a soulful jazz vibe. Ultimately, I’d love to put together my own cabaret show and travel nationally and internationally, so I have a bit more artistic freedom. Every artist wants to be able to have an artistic freedom to express themselves however they like. I’d also love to go back to New York and perform on Broadway again. There's so many great shows out there that are out but are making a comeback. Maybe TV or film, too.  There are so many different venues that are opening up for me.

Motown the Musical is showing at Wharton Center for Performing Arts now through March 20, 2016. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, click here