NEW YORK (AP) — One of the best moments in the carefully crafted Broadway show “Motown: The Musical” is when the unpredictable happens.
That’s when actress Allison Semmes, who plays Diana Ross, goes off script to ask a member of the audience to join her onstage to sing “Reach Out and Touch.”
The good-natured Semmes, who has played Ross for 2½ years on tour, has seen audience members do everything from giving her suggestion a chilly reception to folks running up the aisle to the stage, screaming.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” said the Chicago native. “Honestly, you feed off that energy. It’s kind of like improv. Every night is different.”
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Semmes has been lifted up into the air by an overeager fan and she’s had a feather boa wrapped around her. Sometimes patrons refuse to leave the stage or want to clamber up onstage with their drinks. Other times, it’s very clear they’ve had way too much to drink.
“I always think, ‘What would Diana do in this moment?’ And there’s plenty of footage of her doing ‘Reach Out and Touch’ and she’s playful and she likes to poke fun and she likes to flirt with the crowd. So I just play along,” she said.
The song-heavy story of Motown Record’s tumultuous history won’t last long on Broadway — it closes Sunday — but it has been an important show for Semmes. It was her first big part and helped her fulfill the dream of singing onstage with Stevie Wonder.
Semmes studied opera at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before trying her luck in New York, graduating from New York University and snagging a part in “The Book of Mormon.” She was then hired as an ensemble member and understudy for Ross in “Motown” — going on twice as the diva — before starting a long national tour as Ross, maturing into the role.
“Before, I was just extremely careful and extremely conscious with every single choice that I made, making sure that it captured her essence. But as I’ve done the show and lived in the role, I’ve found similarities that we have — Diana and myself,” she said.
The show traces the life of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who wrote the musical’s story, and examines how Gordy helped start the careers of Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and many more. The dozens of songs include “War,” ”What’s Going On” ”Sign, Sealed, Delivered,” ”My Girl” and “Dancing in the Streets.”
Chester Gregory, who plays Gordy, became friends with Semmes two years before they joined the show. They would send each other messages in which they sang to each other. Then they met up again on the tour
“Now we’re onstage doing what we did as friends just for fun but now we get paid to do it,” he said. “We get to meet, we get to fall in love, we get to break up, we get to handle business together, all in the context of Berry and Diana.”
One of the biggest nights on the tour was in Detroit, when Semmes and Gregory led the cast in Motown Records’ hometown. She got a chance to meet some of the artists, including Wonder. They kept in touch, and when the tour rolled into Toronto, she found out Wonder was also in town for a concert. So she reached out and joined him onstage.
“I first met Stevie Wonder — wow. I can’t believe I’m saying this. That’s insane just saying that,” said Semmes, laughing. “It was amazing. He’s a musical legend and to be close to him and to share a stage with him — I’m never going to forget that.”
One person who hasn’t seen her portray Ross is Ross herself, who came to the opening on Broadway but has kept her distance from the show since then. Semmes isn’t sure she could handle it if one night she reached out and touched Ross.
“I think I’d rather not. I think it would be absolutely too much pressure,” she said, laughing.