By Michael Kinney
As the daughter of a musician, Amber Johnson grew up in a house full of music. Whether it was country or old-school R&B, the Norman native was raised with melodies and songs.
Despite that, after graduating from Norman High School in 1998 and attending the University of Oklahoma, Johnson found herself developing an interest in working behind the scenes of musicals instead of singing onstage.
The Motown sound made an impact on Johnson growing up. Founded in Detroit in 1958, it was described as “the soundtrack of a generation.” Johnson can attest to that, as everyone from The Temptations to The Supremes has reserved a place in her memories.
As an adult, Johnson finds herself working on Motown’s reincarnation as an assistant stage manager for Broadway’s Motown the Musical.
“For me, Motown has such a great history and growing up in a household where music was very important, to be part of something that is continuing the legacy of Motown music, bringing people together with the music is important and a great thing to be part of,” Johnson said.
Motown the Musical opens March 7 at Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker Ave., and runs through March 12.
It’s based on founder Berry Gordy’s autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown and the story of how Gordy transformed a small label to the biggest hitmaking machine of the 1960s. The label featured Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, The Isley Brothers, Diana Ross, Boyz II Men, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson.
David Kaverman, who portrays Robinson, said the production hits all the right notes.
“For me, it has really been life-changing. It came at the right time to spread this message of love and family and unity among people and the importance of music,” he said. “We just had a brunch at Mr. Gordy’s house. It was just really humbling and eye-opening to see the kind of history he’s had through the pictures on his wall and everything. Now, we’re part of that Motown family and all these great legends, iconic people, movement makers, inspirers. So for me, it’s one of the high points of my life so far.”
The current Motown the Musical tour is the second one since the show opened on Broadway in 2013. But this is Kaverman’s first run as a castmember.
He originally auditioned as an ensemble player. After several callbacks, he faced the chance of a lifetime.
“They kept calling me back for more things, different things. I ended up in the final round auditioning for Smokey,” Kaverman said. “We had our opening in LA, and Smokey Robinson came and saw the show and I got to meet him. … He gave me some really nice words and was really supportive of the work I’m doing trying to capture him on stage.”
In researching his character, Kaverman said he learned about the importance of Motown and that Robinson was more than a performer.
“Smokey was really kind of the heart and soul of Motown,” Kaverman said. “He was a prolific songwriter. Wrote a lot of music for Motown, for other groups, which I really didn’t know before. He was also a leader. He rose to be vice president of the company, so he understood the business side as well as the creative side. In the show, we have a couple of tense scenes in which Smokey is taking charge.”
Along with Kaverman, Motown the Musical stars Chester Gregory as Gordy, Allison Semmes as Ross and Jarran Muse as Gaye. CJ Wright and Raymond Davis Jr. portray Jackson and Wonder as young boys.
While the behind-the-scenes stories on the uphill battles Motown endured shape the show, the music gives it its soul. Motown the Musical features more than 40 hit songs, including “My Girl,” “What’s Going On,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Kaverman described a part in the show in which Diana Ross asks everyone in the auditorium to hold hands as they all sing together. He said he feels the energy coming from the room. He wants as many people as possible to feel that same energy.
“I would say come to the show because the music is fantastic,” Kaverman said. “And there are such good stories. There is something there to latch onto that is real. It’s touching and inspiring. I think people go to theaters to have a good time, but also to feel things. But I think people will be surprised with how much heart this show has.”
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer with Eyeamtruth.com