Ball of Confusion: 'Motown' actor juggles six roles

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Christian Dante White has several goals in "Motown: The Musical," including growing as a performer and bringing maximal energy eight times a week.

First on the list, however, is this:

"I don't want the audience to go, 'Oh. That guy again.'"

White, 29, wears multiple hats in "Motown," which ends a 3 ½ week run at the Fisher Theatre on Sunday night. Or more precisely, multiple snappy suits.

He portrays Berry Gordy Sr. and a member of two famous vocal ensembles, which makes him Pop, a Top and a Pip.

He also appears as noted Philadelphia disc jockey Georgie Woods, pioneering Motown sales rep Miller London and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Plus, he's an understudy for both Berry Gordy Jr. and Marvin Gaye, and has been needed for both parts since the first touring production of the Broadway show hit the road in Chicago in April.

The challenges of the larger roles are obvious. Juggling half a dozen smaller ones involves different sorts of difficulty — keeping them all distinct, and at the same time treating them with R-E-S-P-E-C-T, even if that was a hit on the Atlantic label.

"These people are a part of history," White says. "I have to get that all in, in only a line or two."

Plus he has to be in a lot of right places at a lot of right times. But when theater is your profession, or maybe even your life, it turns out that part comes easy.

Frequently in the foreground, Christian Dante White dances at the rear of the stage here, fourth from left.

Building the foundation

Motown Records was built on stars — Smokey, Diana, Stevie — but also on role players, from the deportment instructor to the Funk Brothers to the talent onstage. We all know "Do You Love Me," but can anyone name a Contour?

In the musical, White is a similarly stalwart part of the foundation, though not the Foundations, who were British and recorded "Build Me Up Buttercup" on Pye.

Viewed from the audience, he's the Four Top on the far right and the middle Pip. Or, he suggests, you can just look for the tallest one: at 6 foot 4, he's the most elevated member of the cast.

White's longest speech, four sentences, comes as King. A few minutes later, he returns to the stage as Pop Gordy to announce that King has died.

"I absolutely love the challenge," he says. There's more to changing characters and generations than slapping on a wig and a mustache: "It's the way you hold your body, the way you speak. Your own inner clock changes."

Lots of music, bit of history

The show itself is a timeline of the 25 years from Motown's founding in January 1959 to a 25th anniversary television special in 1983.

Written by Gordy with a pen dipped in whitewash, it revolves around whether Gordy will decide to attend a reunion designed to celebrate Gordy's pluck and genius.

For a knowledgeable audience in Detroit, there's as much irony as plot. Among the early tunes, for instance, is "Money," a 1960 hit for Barrett Strong, who now lives in Southfield and doesn't have a great deal of it. One of numerous artists who have differed with Motown over credit and/or royalties, Strong was originally listed as a co-writer with Gordy and Janie Bradford, but his name was later removed.

Nobody ever sang a legal brief, though, and everyone sang along with Motown. The lack of plot isn't as important as the presence of dozens of familiar and terrific songs, performed by talented entertainers a short walk from the original Motown studios.

White grew up with the music in South Bend, Indiana, where it still topped the personal hit parades of his mother and grandma. He went on to Interlochen Center for the Arts and New York's Circle in the Square Theatre School, and embarked immediately on a busy career.

"Motown" marks his third professional stop in Detroit, after tours with "Hairspray" and "The Book of Mormon." It's the first one where a cast outing to Hitsville USA felt like a pilgrimage.

"These songs mean something," he says. "They take you to a place in your life."

And, to a place onstage — or a lot of them.