MOTOWN: ALLISON SEMMES
It's not easy playing a legend.
Allison Semmes (pictured, center) has been doing that for four years and making it look easy as Diana Ross in Motown the Musical, a jammin' celebration of the sound that shaped America in the late 1960s. The show comes to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts this week.
Semmes, reached during a tour stop in Ottawa, said she found her own sound, interpreting the 12-time Grammy nominee, with the encouragement of director Charles Randolph-Wright. After understudying when the show opened in 2013, Semmes graduated to the role in Motown's return to Broadway last year.
"They didn't really want us to imitate these people but to capture the essence," Semmes said.
As one of producer Berry Gordy's biggest discoveries — and his romantic interest — Ross factors heavily into a star-studded storyline that includes Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
Semmes, a classically trained Chicago native, earned a degree in opera at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then a master's at New York University-Steinhardt. Then musical theater called.
She's well aware that Ross didn't sell 100 million records worldwide on her voice alone. "Diana was the artist young black girls saw who portrayed elegance," Semmes said. "That elegance was part of the Motown factor."
Semmes also sees a sadness in the superstar, at least in those ingenue years. "When I watch and study her performing, I see a sparkling thing wanting to be loved by all the people, a sparkling and an innocence."
The real Diana Ross, 73, is also on tour — she came to Clearwater in June — and still selling out concerts.
Motown the Musical runs Tuesday through Aug. 13 at the Straz Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $28.50 and up. (813) 229-7827. For showtimes, go to strazcenter.org.
LOVABLE LOSER: ERIK GRIFFIN
Writer and actor Erik Griffin, whose self-created persona plays a regular guy taking the brunt of things on a never-ending stream of awkward situations, headlines at Side Splitters this weekend.
With the debut this year of a comedy album, Technical Foul: Volume One, and a half-hour set on Comedy Central, Griffin's star looks to be rising. He's often the target of his own comedy, musing about his inability to relate to popular "chick songs" or a sense of free-floating anxiety around his multi-ethnic heritage.
"My African-American friend, we don't need another lawsuit," a nervous boss tells him in the short clip, Jealous Dudes for Funny or Die. "I'm not black, I'm Dominican," he whispers to a co-worker. "The worst part is when they think you're a terrorist," he told an audience on Comics Without Borders. "I come here to do a quick set before hitting the airport."
8:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 and 10:15 p.m. Friday, 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday at Side Splitters Comedy Club, 12938 Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 960-1197. sidesplitterscomedy.com.
SHOWS ADDED: SEX WITH STRANGERS
The season closer at American Stage, Sex With Strangers, will run an additional weekend. The play by House of Cards writer Laura Eason follows the collaboration and romance between a reclusive literary writer and brash blogger. Runs through Aug. 13 at Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529. americanstage.org.
ON BROADWAY: ROSHARRA FRANCIS
At age 9, Rosharra Francis told her mother she was going to become a "triple threat."
"I don't even know where she got that from," said Sharon Welch, who had already watched her daughter grow musically at the Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ in St. Petersburg. That same year, Rosharra was auditioning for Disney commercials and getting her first head shot.
Last month, Francis, a graduate of the Gibbs High arts magnet, joined the Broadway cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. She's playing Little Eva, who sings The Loco-Motion, and a member of the Shirelles and the Chiffons.
"It's definitely very exciting," Francis said. "It was nice to travel to places I probably wouldn't have gone to. But the schedule is kind of taxing."