Motown: The Musical, the hit Broadway musical now touring the country, arrives next week for a 13-day run at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.
Grammy-nominated artist Ashley Támar Davis plays several roles, including Gladys Knight and Motown founder Berry Gordy’s sister Esther. She talked about her parts in a MSR phone interview.
“The reason why I auditioned for Motown [is] because it was the first Broadway show I’ve seen in my entire life, which was last year,” explains Davis. She was impressed with the actors performing the Motown songs: “I got to see people who look like me.”
After telling a friend who watched the show with her that she could see herself on stage as well, “I auditioned for the [touring] show … it was definitely not a thought if I could do it — I just knew I could do it.”
“There are a lot of things different” about the musical, explains Davis. “The thing is portraying real people that are icons, and we are portraying them at a time where they were breaking barriers, and we are still in that time. [Those are] the emotional factors that I love doing.”
Being Gladys Knight on stage is challenging, says Davis, who studied several of her songs, including “Midnight Train to Georgia.” “Gladys has a certain tone and timber to her voice. She’s more of an alto singer. But I got a lot of my homework from Mr. Gordy himself. He said that when he first met Gladys Knight, out of everyone he met she really knew how to command a stage. She knew exactly who she was — image-wise and vocally all by herself. That’s where I got most of my [information] from Mr. Gordy.”
Also, Davis has to be prepared to play the role of Diana Ross at any given time. “I’ve played her three times. She’s different because she’s so feminine. The other ladies [I play] are more dominant [and] bolder. I actually play multiple roles” including Stevie Wonder’s mother, says the actress-singer.
At age nine, Davis once was a member of a six-member preteen girls’ group that competed on the Star Search show. The group lost and disbanded — three of the members later would form Destiny’s Child, featuring Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Latavia Robertson.
“That was fun,” Davis recalls, who attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, then went to Los Angeles to study music at the University of Southern California, where she became classically trained, graduated with a B.A. in music and learned how to sing in French, Italian, German and Swahili. Her demo a few years later reached Prince, who invited Davis to Paisley Park and offered her a production contract.
After a second stint on Star Search, Davis was re-introduced to Prince, who hired her for his band. She later sang background vocals on his 3121 album. Her singing exploits later led her to Tyler Perry, who signed her to appear in several of his stage plays.
When asked about working with both artists, “Both of those men are very great at executing a vision,” says Davis. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned as an artist and a singer, and as a woman.”
Motown: The Musical educates as well as entertain, surmises Davis. “A lot of people associate ‘[I Heard It Through the] Grapevine’ more with Marvin Gaye” but Gladys Knight and the Pips first recorded the song, she points out.
“I don’t think the youth per se in this generation appreciates Motown. I remember when we first started out with the show, I was really hurt that not a lot of high schools were bringing their students to see the show. But a lot of the kids that do come and see the show, they gravitate to a young Michael Jackson and a young Berry Gordy.
“It is very interesting that a lot of people don’t know Michael Jackson [began at Motown]. They know he started somewhere,” says Davis, who adds that the audience gets a real good look at Smokey Robinson’s contribution to not only Motown but also American music. “I think people fall in love with Smokey Robinson.”
Davis, a solo artist, is very appreciative of the Motown Sound and the artists that helped cement it in American music history. “I wasn’t born in that era. The hardest challenge is to really know how great they were with their melodies back then. The music has changed drastically now.”