‘Get Ready’ For Julius Thomas III in ‘Motown: The Musical’ By Lynda Lacayo

Motown the Musical JULIUS THOMAS III (Berry Gordy) ALLISON SEMMES (Diana Ross) JESSE NAGER (Smokey Robinson)

“What’s Going On” is the magical production “Motown: The Musical.” The monstrous Broadway hit arrives at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts June 16 – 28. Audiences will be “Dancing in the Streets,” as well as into the aisles, with the best beats of six decades (1957-1983) from the Motown movement going full throttle.

“What’s Going On” is the magical production “Motown: The Musical.” The monstrous Broadway hit arrives at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts June 16 – 28. Audiences will be “Dancing in the Streets,” as well as into the aisles, with the best beats of six decades (1957-1983) from the Motown movement going full throttle.

“Motown: The Musical” chronicles Motown Records founder Berry Gordy’s “rags to riches” rise from feather weight boxer to heavy hitting music mogul. He lived the ‘American Dream,’ starting small time in downtown Detroit to become the most successful African American businessman of his day. As his vision became reality, he shattered racial barriers bringing together young people with infectious songs.

In Gordy’s words “black kids and white kids were dancing together to the same music. It created a bond that echoed throughout the world.”

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the sign above the door of Gordy’s modest Detroit headquarters read “Hitsville, U.S.A.” That sign turned out to beprophetic. Gordy uses that same entrepreneurial spirit to motivate the cast of “Motown: The Musical,” especially leading man, Julius Thomas III, who plays the hit-making mogul in the Segerstrom production. Thomas says “having the opportunity to play Mr. Gordy is very exciting. The man is a living legend; he influenced not only the music world, but also civil conflicts of that time. It is a real responsibly to do justice to his life.”

New York based, and a triple threat (singer, dancer, actor), Thomas played David Ruffin of the Temptations and was an understudy to the Gordy role on Broadway. As an understudy, Thomas appeared approximately 40 times on stage during his 18-month Motown stint. He didn’t audition for the touring company because his audition was being a part of the NYC show. He says, “It was really great to cut my leading man teeth on the Gordy role. I was on and off stage so I had the opportunity to watch the other “Berry Gordy” and learn from him. I compare the experience to training wheels, observe, learn and create my own interpretation.”

In this show, which is so closely related to his life, Gordy is a ‘hands-on’ producer, even going so far as to dance with the cast at the Los Angeles opening of “Motown: The Musical.”

Gordy has been a mentor to Thomas, giving him advice on how to portray him. Thomas says he enjoys working with him.

Mr. Gordy is the nicest man, he makes me feel comfortable,” Thomas said. “He does critique my performance but in a positive way. I’m learning from the best.” He continues, “Fortunately, he tells me he loves what I’m doing.”

It’s been said that the Motown family of producers, artists and stars are “forever linked and forever strong.” With “Motown: the Musical” a new link of kinship is beingformed. Thomas describes being a part of Motown as “a celebration with family. Berry and Smokey (Robinson) are often in the house. Many of the original Motown entertainers support the musical. It’s as if we all have a vested interest in telling Gordy’s musical biography. That’s not only unique, it’s neat.

“Motown: The Musical” is a hit parade of 60 plus chart toppers and the hits just keep on coming for two hours and forty-five minutes but it’s not another ‘jukebox’ musical. Thomas says “This is an entirely original show. We take it seriously because it’s about more than the music, wonderful as it is; we have a story to tell. The show is a tribute to the fans, Motown artists and Gordy himself. Yes, his story is the background that fuels the music but there’s also a backdrop of the history that was happening at the time.”

There “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that Berry Gordy hasn’t scaled in his illustrious career. “Motown: The Musical” is his Everest with a book based on his life, a score that include three new songs and a series of ‘oldie but goodie’ knockouts from the golden era of Motown. Thomas as Gordy is one of the few characters who was not a recording artist, so he blends dialogue with song,he says “we use a few songs as a story telling tool, taking a little artistic license to get it right.”

While Thomas enjoys his leading man role, he looks back fondly on his Broadway “Motown” debut, saying, “I loved playing David Ruffin of the Temptations and singing “My Girl” on stage nightly.”

In “Motown: The Musical,” “My Girl” is Allison Semmes. Both actors understudied their respective roles on Broadway and Semmes was first to tour playing Diana Ross. Thomas describes her as fantastic and unrivaled in the part, saying, “It’s easy to fall in love with her every night.” Incidentally, Thomas favorite song is the Supremes’ “Baby, Baby.”

The musical’s cast is building bonds to match that of the original Motown family. When asked if he had a favorite scene, Thomas is passionate about any of the scenes he’s in with Jesse Nager, who plays Smoky Robinson. He says, “We are friends on and off stage, much like our real life counterparts. We’ve even had an opportunity to enact a couple of scenes in the library of Gordy’s home, with the two legends watching us. We back each other up and that makes our job easy and real.”

Back in the day, Berry Gordy “wanted a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist – a star. “Motown: the Musical” is opening doors on a whole new generation of stars because in Gordy’s words, spoken by Thomas “competition breeds champions.”

Thomas says, “Motown has everything – great, music, great laughs, great performances and a great message.”

“My Mama Done Told Me” get on down to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts to see “Motown: The Musical,” playing June 16 – 28. For tickets and information: In person at the Box Office (600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, California 92626); by phone, 714-556-2787; online, SCFTA.org. Hours are 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily.



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