Playing a living person is a challenge for any actor. Portraying someone who is not only alive, but is watching and passing judgment on you, is a special challenge.
Chester Gregory, a veteran of “Dreamgirls” and “Sister Act,” plays Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. in “Motown: The Musical,” which arrives at the Fisher Theatre on Tuesday for a run through April 30.
Gregory survived auditioning for the role of Gordy, in front of Gordy. But that’s true for most roles in the musical that first opened on Broadway in 2013. The book was written by Gordy as what he termed his last big creative act and a corrective to what he felt were inaccurate narratives about the record company he founded in Detroit in 1959.
It helped that Gregory had met Gordy earlier, at the 2014 Los Angeles opening of “Motown: The Musical” through his friends Allison Semmes, who played Diana Ross in the first road company (and still does), and Jarran Muse, who portrayed Marvin Gaye, then and now.
Gregory said he was able to shake off those “first-time jitters” because he had already met Gordy. “I could just focus on how I was interpreting him,” he said.
“I have to say, he was very warm and down to earth, so it made me feel comfortable enough to make choices as an actor in my portrayal. I’m actually excited every time I get to perform for him. He always has notes,” Gregory added, with a laugh.
Ah, the famous notes. There’s a scene in the musical when Semmes, as Ross, cries out, “Notes, notes, always the notes!” after she receives, yet again, a written critique of her performance from Gordy.
Those notes don’t make Gregory nervous, he insists. “I feel excited to be one of the artists who worked with Berry Gordy, just to have that as a part of my personal legacy, forever.”
Even the less-experienced members of the cast have come to welcome the notes.
Devin Price, who graduated from Oakland University in 2015, plays several roles: high tenor Eddie Kendricks in the Temptations; one of the high energy Contours during the “Do You Love Me” number; a Commodore and several background roles. He was impressed by the 87-year-old Motown founder’s focus.
“He is very hands-on with the show, we get notes from Mr. Gordy,” Price said happily. “He was there in L.A. all week, leaving notes, and we changed some lines (as a result).
“He’s going to come in Detroit to see it. He keeps you on your toes. He may not always remember your name, but if you tell him what you did, or who you play, he’ll let you know.”
Price, who grew up in Lansing, is psyched to be playing a Temptation. His favorite scene is when the group sings “My Girl.” “That’s such a classic. They were such smooth guys. I’m cool, but they were some smooth men. When I put the suit with the ruffled top on every night ... we’re walking and snapping our fingers, and the crowd goes crazy.”
There are so many iconic songs packed into the show, and so much dancing, that the cast is quite literally on their toes at all times.
Portraying different members of some of Motown’s most famous male singing groups isn’t as easy as it might seem. They sang, danced and even carried themselves in distinctive ways.
“You have to really work on your body — a Contour is different from a Temptation and a Temptation is different from a Miracle,” Price said.
This production of “Motown: The Musical,” which hit the road in January, has evolved from the original Broadway show, the first road company, and the British production, which is still running in London’s West End. The first road company played the Fisher in 2014.
“The choreography is a little different,” said Price. “And the set, it’s all LED screen now.”
One unique bond that Gregory has with Gordy is Jackie Wilson. The Motown founder first broke into the music business in the late 1950s when he sold Wilson’s manager several songs, including “Lonely Teardrops,” that became hits for the Detroit-born R&B star.
Gregory portrayed Wilson, who died in 1984, in a Black Ensemble Theater of Chicago production, “My Heart is Crying, Crying: The Jackie Wilson Story.” The show traveled around in the early 2000s, including to Detroit.
So the actor had to ask Gordy some questions about Wilson.
“I asked him about the song ‘Lonely Teardrops.’ I’d heard rumors about it being a slow song, and then Jackie Wilson took it and made it his own, he had a calypso feel in it,” said Gregory. “I heard that when Berry Gordy first heard it, he had tears in his eyes and said, ‘You ruined my song!’ He confirmed it. He said, ‘Yeah, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ was a blues song when he first wrote it.’ ”
It’s ironic that, even after playing Wilson, and roles in other musicals, including the showy role of Jimmy Early in “Dreamgirls,” that Gregory couldn’t get an audition for “Motown: The Musical” for some time. He wished his friends Semmes and Muse well from afar, and bided his time.
Even though he’s now been in the show for a while, having played the role on Broadway last summer and on the road since January, Gregory doesn’t get tired of the music.
“If you’ve been doing a show for a while, the songs, if they’re not great songs, the imperfections will stand out over time,” he said. “But these songs are so well-written and crafted, it’s fresh. And I love celebrating the legacy every night.”
It really hits the actor when, as Gordy, he sings, “It’s What’s in the Groove That Counts.”
“He wanted to create music that was timeless and that crossed all barriers. So every night when I sing that, I look out into the audience and see white people, black people, people of all ages, and they respond to that music. The goal he had in mind to transcend barriers, he’s done just that.”
Price feels it when he plays Kendricks of the Temptations in the scene where Semmes as Diana Ross sings “Reach Out and Touch” and goes out into the audience to get people to hold hands.
“She asks people to hold hands, and the first couple of times after we opened in January, the first couple of weeks, I got emotional,” Price said. “I thought, ‘This is real, we are spreading joy across America right now.’ What a great time to be doing this.”
Susan Whitall is the author of several books and a longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com
‘Motown the Musical’
Featuring: Chester Gregory (Berry Gordy), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross), Jarran Muse (Marvin Gaye), David Kaverman (Smokey Robinson).
8 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; April 18-30
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.
BroadwayinDetroit.com or Ticketmaster.com