Actor, singer, dancer Chester “Chess” Gregory has gone from one show to another ever since he graduated with B.F.A. in theater from Columbia College in Chicago. Now appearing in the national tour of “Motown The Musical.” Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Gregory will soon be in the capitol of his home state playing Motown founder and producer/songwriter Berry Gordy. Presented by Broadway in Indianapolis, the show will play Old National Centre March 28 through April 2.
“Motown the Musical,”directed by Charles Randolph-Wright is the story of Gordy’s journey from featherweight boxer to the legendary music impresario. Gordy launched the careers of giants such as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and many more.
40 classic hits such as “My Girl,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” are featured in the show that tells the story behind the hits as Barry and his Motown family who struggle against the odds to create the soundtrack that helped to break racial barriers of segregation through music. As far as the aforementioned Gregory—it wasn’t until I interviewed him yesterday by phone from St. Louis, where the tour is current playing, that I realized that I had seen him him perform previously at The Cabaret at The Columbia Club (now its former home) in February of 2014. At the time, Gregory was starring in “The Eve of Jackie,” a show he created, which paid tribute to an early Motown great, Jackie Wilson.
At the beginning of the interview I asked Gregory if he had ever played Indy and he mentioned that he had appeared here in “Dreamgirls” and “Sister Act.” But when he said that he had also played the Cabaret, it was then I recalled his memorable performance that prompted me to write a review in which I stated “Gregory performed in character as Wilson for the Cabaret audience as if it were present at the entertainer’s live show. Rather than merely impersonating Wilson, Gregory captured his essence instead. Possessing a vocal tone and range similar to Wilson’s, Gregory channeled his idol through a performance in which he replicated the singer’s falsetto, signature choreography, passion and inexhaustible energy.”
For the graduate of the Emerson Visual and Performing Arts School in Gary, it’s a “full circle moment” playing Gordy who discovered both Jackie Wilson and that other Gary native, Michael Jackson. Burned in Gregory’s memory is the time in 2003 he performed as Jackie Wilson for MJ (who gave him a standing ovation) who revered the iconic entertainer. “Growing up in Gary and looking up to Michael Jackson and everything he brought to Gary, playing Jackie Wilson, who was MJ’s biggest influence and now playing Barry Gordon the guy who discovered MJ and propelled his career— is kind of a trifecta. For me it’s a celebration of these three icons who not only gave inspiration to the world but helped me believe that whatever I wanted to do was attainable.” says Gregory.
As far as “Motown,” Gregory says that audiences are “incredibly diverse.The crowds we see when we look out every night are exactly what Gordy envisioned for Motown. He wanted music to cross all barriers. We see everybody from Baby boomers on to X, Y and the millennials generation. Plus, audiences usually mixed with both blacks and whites in attendance.
According the Gregory, young people people appreciate the music because he says “Much of the current music they hear samples Motown songs. They hear those songs and say ‘Oh, I didn’t know it came from that.’ The music is so great. It transcends generations. They may not necessarily know the artists but are familiar with some of the music. It’s really interesting.”
Gregory confirms that it’s the Baby boomers who are especially affected by “Motown’ and says “I hear stories from them about their high school days like when Motown songs were played at sock hops that were segregated. All the black kids would be on one side and all the white kids would be on the other side of the room just like in “Hairspray.” By the time they graduated, and largely because of Motown music, eventually everybody danced together when the songs came on. The sock hops were integrated.”
And how many Motown oldies but goodies will you hear when you see the show? “60 songs. The Motown catalogue is one of the best in the world and everybody has their own individual response to it. Some had their first dance, their first kiss to this music. We cover a lot of music, so it is interesting to hear people yell and scream when they hear certain songs and we certainly encourage those responses.” says Gregory.
“Motown The Musical” will play Old National Centre March 28 – April 4. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday matinee at 1 p.m., and Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m.. Tickets are available in person at Clowes Memorial Hall, the Old National Centre Ticket Office, online at BroadwayinIndianapolis.com, or by phone at 1-800-982-2787. The Groups of 10 or more can book now by calling 317-632-7469 x103.