It has been three – four years since Hyde Park native actress/singer, Allison Semmes, has been back home in Chicago. Now she’s having a great homecoming celebration, returning in a way that’s mind blowing to her. She’s starring as legendary singer Diana Ross in the national tour of “Motown The Musical” at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. “It’s a dream come true!” she says.
At the tender age of three, Allison possessed a special gift. Her mother noticed her in full theater mode one day as she “harmonized with the vacuum cleaner.” Her mother soon realized that she had a musical child on her hands. Whenever her mother play Jody Watley on the record player, Allison would sing and dance with wild abandonment. She remembers seeing Diana Ross on television as well and jumping around singing and dancing. So to harness and hone Allison’s gift and energy, her mother enrolled her in ballet classes and voice lessons.
Her music and artistic foundations were further cultivated here in Chicago as a little girl singing in the choir at Greater Institutional AME Church and while attending Kenwood Academy. She also sang with the Chicago’s Children’s Choir for 16 years.
While attending grammar school, Allison remembers auditioning for the 6th grade choir and being around her peers and saying “one day I want to be on Broadway.” That was her goal and later in college her love for being in show choirs (University of Illinois Black Chorus and the University of Illinois Concert Choir) helped shape her toward her dream.
After finishing high school, Allison worked/performed at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. IL. She was part of a R&B revue called “Show Stopping.” All of this was nothing but prep work towards her goal of one day being on Broadway.
After high school, she attended the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and studied classical music and opera. She received a Bachelors of Music in Classical Voice. Yet, even with her opera degree, Allison still yearned to perform on the Broadway stage. She took a leap of faith and headed to New York. Allison says she’s blessed to have parents that believed in her talent and gifts. They wholeheartedly supported her decision and wished her well on her musical journey.
New York – The City of Bright Neon Lights
Studying at the New York University-Steinhart School of Music, Semmes changed her major to Musical Theatre-Voice and earned her Masters.
Allison has extensive teaching experience as a Private Voice and Group Voice instructor at New York University. Her dance training includes Samba, Ballet, Jazz, Tap, Modern and Salsa. She has also appeared in commercials notably one for Black Opal Fade Cream.
Regional productions of shows like “Bubbling Brown Sugar” and “Dreamgirls” followed after she graduated, as well as a Non-Equity tour of “The Color Purple.” National tours include “The Wiz” and “Candide.” Her Broadway credits include “The Book of Mormon” and starring as former Supremes singer Florence Ballard (while understudying Diana Ross) in “Motown The Musical.”
She remembers becoming familiar with the Motown catalog of music growing up. Her parents played the original vinyl records around the house all the time. And now she’s come full circle by singing these songs in the show.
Semmes is relishing the chance to star in her first national tour with the luxury of extra rehearsal time. It’s a contrast to being a part of the original cast of “Motown The Musical” as an understudy/replacement.
When asked how she kept her focus during her career while being part of the chorus and as an understudy, she quickly answered saying “it didn’t matter if I was in the back, in the front or on the side. I was just happy to be on that stage telling the story. I realized that everyone on the stage was a vital part of the show.”
She added, “I understood the importance of everyone on the stage. At any given moment you holding a branch could inspire or bless someone. Everyone has a part.”
When I asked Allison how important was her faith when dealing with rejection, and waiting for callbacks and no callbacks she replied (first humming like one of the church mothers dressed in all white) “Hmmm Um Hmmm” “it was so pivotal! So many times all you hear is no, no and No! And sometimes that can get to you. But knowing that God had more in store for me, and his plans included the desires of my heart, I knew that he didn’t give me this gift for a reason. He gave me this passion for music to share it for a reason. So these “No’s were just temporary!”
She admits she went through some phrases after hearing so many no’s, but it was always that little voice in her head that said, “You’re here for a reason and follow your passion.”
Being Prepared and Focused
Allison says the rehearsal process takes focus and it takes study. It’s fun especially if you believe in the material, but you really need that focus to do your best. As a doctor has to study to be prepared to do his job, an actor has to do the same thing. It’s very important to prepare and be focused at your job at hand. Opportunities are God given and sometimes only come once in a lifetime.
Allison stated while playing Florence Ballard on Broadway (while understudying Diana Ross) that she really didn’t have much time to work and discover Diana on her own. But now she’s thrilled to be working with the entire “Motown The Musical” creative team. “They have given me the freedom to discover the role as my own as well as giving me great direction to capture her essence as well.”
Semmes also had the opportunity to “pick” Motown Records founder Berry Gordy’s brain in a two-hour one-on-one session where she asked him practically everything and that proved to be invaluable. Noting that Gordy’s memory is so sharp and clear. He remembered everything about how/when/why Motown got started. Gordy was overflowing with information and it was amazing to hear from the living legend himself – straight from the source.
Semmes said, “It would be a dream if I could meet (Diana Ross) because I spent so much time studying her and following her.”
Semmes is also happy to be a part of “Motown The Musical” itself, since it highlights how pop music helped changed American culture and beliefs. “It wasn’t just music—it crossed so many boundaries and barriers and it really was America’s music. 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.
Advice for the “Dreamgirl” In Training
In closing, I asked Allison Semmes what advice she would give to a little girl who, at this very moment, was performing in front of her mirror with a hairbrush (microphone) in hand.
Allison’s eyes lit up like stars and replied, “Keep dreaming, stay prepared and stay focused. Follow your heart no matter what anyone says! And wholeheartedly TRUST GOD!”
The First National Tour of Motown The Musical is now running thru August 9th at the Oriental Theatre here in Chicago before continuing to cities across the country.