'Now That I Can Dance' revived to commemorate Motown's 60th

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

There was never a doubt what show Mosaic Youth Theatre founder Rick Sperling would choose as his last one to present before retiring. It had to be “Now That I Can Dance: Motown 1962,” the bittersweet story of the teenaged Marvelettes and the early days of Motown.  

This latest revival of his 2005 musical premiers Aug. 9 at the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Detroit Film Theatre, in cooperation with the Motown Historical Museum. It runs several times a week through Aug. 18.

D'Marreon Alexander, portraying Marvin Gaye, sings at the rehearsal for "Now That I Can Dance - Motown 1962" at the Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit.

“Of all the shows I’ve ever done at Mosaic, this is the one people talk about the most,” Sperling said. “Two weeks don’t go by without someone asking, ‘When are you going to bring back ‘Now That I Can Dance’? Gene Gargaro, the DIA board chair, would ask all the time. I had to explain that we couldn’t get the rights to the music—now, we finally have the rights.”

From left, Makayla Hewins, Aj'ziona Campbell-Kelly, Cayla Sims, Jenia Head  and Rayven Davis rehearse for "Now That I Can Dance - Motown 1962" at the Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit.

This will be the fourth revival of the musical, which premiered in 2005 as the first full-blown musical about Motown. It hasn’t been staged since 2012, because there was a handshake agreement that it wouldn’t be presented while Berry Gordy’s “Motown: The  Musical” was running. Having Gordy and Motown’s permission to use the songs in the Mosaic production was essential.

Once the Temptations’ Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” opened and was permitted to use the music, Sperling asked, and was allowed to proceed. The August dates for “Now That I Can Dance” are in fact presented “in cooperation with” the Motown Museum, to commemorate the company’s 60th anniversary.

“Now That I Can Dance” is young, raw and emotional, thanks to the many teenagers in the cast who play Motown artists of the same age. There are also Mosiac alumni from previous productions in the company, as well as some adults drawn from community auditions. The Marvelettes are front and center, but other Motown artists of the time are represented, including the (then no-hit) Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the young women who sang backup on many Motown hits, the Andantes.

“This is also about the Andantes’ story, which isn’t really told,” Sperling said. “We have a young man playing Smokey Robinson who was born to play Smokey Robinson. He’s got the voice, the looks. Actually one of our current (Mosaic) members was made to play Gladys Horton, she’s really got a Gladys Horton vibe. We have a Mosaic alumna playing Diana Ross who’s made to play Diana Ross, and Florence Ballard’s great-niece is playing Georgia Dobbins.” The character of Ballard is prominent in the musical, as she was particularly close to the Marvelettes.

Marcus Beeks as Motown founder Berry Gordy, right, Taran Knight as Smokey Robinson, left, center, and Rayven Davis as The Marvelettes' Gladys Horton perform a scene at the rehearsal for "Now That I Can Dance - Motown 1962" at the Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit.

 Back in the early 2000s, Sperling had just come off presenting a mature play for Mosaic about the Hastings Street/Black Bottom scene in the 1940s, so he wanted to do something about young people, for his largely teenage company.

It was Robin Terry of the Motown Historical Museum who suggested that he focus a musical on the early days of Motown.

 “She said, ‘You know, in 1962 they were all teenagers,’” Sperling recalled. “So I thought, OK--maybe we’ll do historical fiction. We’ll place our characters in that time. But when we interviewed Kat [Katherine Anderson Schaffner of the Marvelettes], and looked deeper into the Marvelettes’ story, I said, ‘We don’t have to create a story nobody knows. That’s the story nobody knows!’

The Marvelettes’ story is compelling because despite their early ‘60s success they are largely unknown today, compared to the Supremes and other Motown stars. They were five teenagers from Inkster High School -- Gladys Horton, Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Wanda Young, Georgia Dobbins, and Juanita Cowart --who managed to get an audition with Berry Gordy. Despite their unpolished presentation, youthful verve and a catchy song written by Dobbins got them signed and led to a No. 1 pop hit –Motown’s first--when “Please, Mr. Postman” topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on Dec. 11, 1961.

The Marvelettes hit just in time to ride a wave of girl group mania, as groups such as the Shirelles, the Crystals, the Chiffons were at the forefront of pop culture for a time. The girls from Inkster also forged a path that Motown’s other girl groups—the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Velvelettes—could follow.

The Marvelettes’ little song also helped infuse Motown with much-needed cash at a crucial time. It didn’t hurt, either, when the Beatles covered the song, bringing even more money into Motown’s coffers. They weren’t one-hit wonders, going on to score hits with “Playboy,” “Beachwood 4-5789,” “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “Don’t Mess With Bill.”

“Now That I Can Dance,” based on many interviews with Anderson, as well as other Motown acts, including Martha Reeves, the Vandellas, Paul Riser, Bobby Rogers of the Miracles, and Joe Billingslea of the Contours. Billingslea, the Vandellas and Cal Street of the Velvelettes made themselves available as mentors to the current Mosaic company.

The not-so- glamorous story of the Marvelettes and the other young acts trying to break through in 1962 is pure Detroit, Sperling believes--gutsy and real.

“This really feels like Detroit, because it has that early grit,” Sperling said. “In fact, one of the things we told the singers was that in the early days, Gordy encouraged them to let their voices crack. (Gordy) felt that the emotion and authenticity would connect with people in an emotional way. The Supremes were much smoother. The Temptations kept some of the roughness but were very polished.”

In “Now That I Can Dance” you’ll meet the “no-hit” (at the time) Supremes featuring Diane Ross (pre-“Diana”); a Marvin Gaye who wanted to be the black Frank Sinatra; the then-queen of Motown, Mary Wells, and a puckish 12-year-old Stevie Wonder running around, stealing pennies off secretaries desks.

Sperling believes that of the biggest myths about Motown is that the Supremes could dance. In his musical, the girl group doing the funky footwork are in fact the Marvelettes—and there are youtube videos of the actual group performing at the Apollo that are astonishing.

 “The Supremes couldn’t dance at all,” Sperling insisted (ouch!). “I went to see ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ (on Broadway), and (the women playing the Supremes) were dancing up a storm. The Marvelettes were the first girl group to really dance, but that fact is smooshed into the Supremes story now.”

He even draws a line from the Marvelettes to Beyonce’s fierce dancing, “being onstage and being strong. Videos of the Shirelles and even the early Supremes are just painful to watch. They’re wearing puffy dresses, and look like little dolls walking around, while the Marvelettes are dancing the way kids are dancing, able to match up with the Contours.”

The Marvelettes’ feistiness extended to their choice of songs. The Supremes’ breakthrough with the Holland-Dozier-Holland song “Where Did Our Love Go” came about in part, thanks to Marvelettes’ lead singer Horton, who refused to do another song casting the female singer as a victim.

As for Sperling’s future plans, as he winds up his career with Mosaic, in September he will be consulting Detroit Community School District on their School of the Arts and the theater programs in middle schools that feed into it, full-time. “It’s a little surreal,” he said, of directing “Now That I Can Dance” for the last time. But, there is an agreement that Mosaic can put the musical on for five years, so this won’t be the last time for the show.

For now, fans can expect to see many Motown luminaries at the premier, including Schaffner, the Vandellas, Riser, and maybe even Dobbins, who had to quit the group early, despite writing their hit, and with whom Sperling met up after he’d written the musical.

Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to the Detroit News, and the author of the book “Women of Motown.

“Now That I Can Dance: Motown 1962”

Mosaic Youth Theatre

Detroit Film Theatre, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Box office: (313) 833-7900

Showtimes/dates: 7 p.m. Fri, Aug. 9; 7 p.m. Sat., Aug 10; 4 p.m. Sun., Aug. 11; 7 p.m. Fri., Aug. 16; 7 p.m. Sat., Aug. 17; 4 p.m. Sun., Aug. 18.

Tickets:  $10 youth, $15 senior, $20 adult, $25 VIP. VIP tickets include admission to a pre-show reception. Go to mosaicdetroit.org for details.