Chester Gregory and Allison Semmes met about two years ago at a mutual friend’s Christmas party in Harlem. They clicked as friends and he went to see her play Diana Ross in the national tour of Motown the Musical, which tells the history of Berry Gordy’s record label. They stayed in touch through the tour, and eventually he joined the touring company as Gordy himself. Starting July 12, they’ll play those roles on Broadway for an 18-week limited engagement. “Allison and I have been friends for over two years, we’ve been doing the show together for six months now, and it’s been a dream come true,” says Gregory. “Aside from being a wonderful friend, she is an incredible talent in multiple disciplines. I get a chance to play with her and share the stage, and we get a chance to share our chemistry with the audience every single night.
Chester Gregory and Allison Semmes met about two years ago at a mutual friend’s Christmas party in Harlem. They clicked as friends and he went to see her play Diana Ross in the national tour of Motown the Musical, which tells the history of Berry Gordy’s record label. They stayed in touch through the tour, and eventually he joined the touring company as Gordy himself. Starting July 12, they’ll play those roles on Broadway for an 18-week limited engagement. “Allison and I have been friends for over two years, we’ve been doing the show together for six months now, and it’s been a dream come true,” says Gregory. “Aside from being a wonderful friend, she is an incredible talent in multiple disciplines. I get a chance to play with her and share the stage, and we get a chance to share our chemistry with the audience every single night.”
Gregory says that when he started rehearsals, director Charles Randolph-Wright immediately responded to the connection between him and Semmes. It stems from a mutual understanding, Semmes says. They have a lot in common: They’re introverts, music lovers, Midwesterners (she’s from Chicago, he’s from Gary, Indiana), and they share a similar sense of humor. “We felt it as soon as we met. He’s a really kind person. He’s very likable and extremely talented,” she says. “There was also a kind of mutual talent crush that was happening there. I’m such a fan of his work, and he tells me the same. There’s definitely a respect in our work as well.”
In order to play such iconic figures, Semmes and Gregory immersed themselves in research. She went to what she calls “YouTube University” to watch footage of Ross from her time in the Supremes all the way through today to study her movements, voice, and posture. She read Ross’s book Secrets of a Sparrow. Gregory has Gordy’s book To Be Loved, the inspiration for the musical, on his phone, and also watched footage of Gordy. Both Semmes and Gregory used this research to inform their performances — not as fuel for impressions. “We have liberty to express what’s true to us, how we portray these real people,” Gregory says. “We’re not portraying caricatures. We’re not doing impersonations of people. We’re emulating the truth of who that person is, which is something entirely different.”
Gregory, who originated roles on Broadway in Tarzan, Cry-Baby, and Sister Act, has played a real music icon before — Jackie Wilson in The Jackie Wilson Story in Chicago, then on tour and in New York. (In it, he sang one of the first songs Berry wrote for Wilson, “To Be Loved,” which he also sings in Motown.) “I am able to do what I’m able to do as an artist and as an actor and as a singer because of the people who have paved the way for me. I’m here because of my ancestors. And me celebrating the Motown legacy is me celebrating and me honoring my ancestors and the people who paved the way for me to be here,” Gregory says.
For Semmes, an ensemble member and understudy for Diana Ross during the initial Broadway engagement, bringing the show back to Broadway is a dream come true. “It feels like a storybook. When I first saw Motown at the Actor’s Fund, I immediately fell in love with the role of Diana Ross and the story, the music, the costumes, the journey of Diana from being this young girl all the way through her career and success,” she says. “That was always the dream, to be on that stage.”
Semmes’s favorite moment is when she sings “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” because she can break the fourth wall and connect with the audience. During the number, she asks the audience to sing and hold hands. “Every city that we’ve traveled to across the country, we’ve seen different demographics of people, different audiences. But every time, I see them holding hands and singing the song together,” she says. “This is a testament that it’s more than just me. It’s showing the power of music how it can unite, and I’m a strong believer in that.”
For those who saw Motown on Broadway before, you’ll be seeing a slightly different show. Gordy is still heavily involved in the show, refining it. Semmes says, “They’ve been amending and revising the show, but it’s the same story and the same songs.”
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