Remembering the Marvelettes and the hit factory's beginnings
Published: May 16, 2012
Anderson-Schaffner added that "the energy was high and the vibe was immaculate. We were family, and we were always on the road. We never thought we'd break a million, and we were on the road when it did, barely had a minute to celebrate. The boys did all the partying."
Vandella Ashford-Holmes said "the atmosphere at West Grand was that everyone really did love each other — at least until you got on the road. But when you were at Hitsville, everyone greeted each other with a hug and a kiss."
This was the kind of interaction Sperling was hoping to produce. He addressed his cast: "See, guys, she just gave you an actionable bit of research there. She said when you arrived at Motown, there was always a hug and a kiss."
"When we went to the Boulevard, it was like we were going home," said Vandella Beard-Helton. "Once we were on Motown, we actually spent more time at the studio than we did at home."
When Sperling said, "That sounds like Mosaic for some of you," he was met with a rather harmonious choruses of yeses.
It went on like that all afternoon, Mosaic mining away at source material for what are known as "actionable" moments, insights to life in the '60s and life on the road, dealing with Southern racism, separation anxiety and educational sacrifices.
"When you're 15, 16 years old, sometimes you don't think of all the consequences that are out there when you make the decision to dedicate your life to it," said Anderson-Schaffner. "We were there before the vocal training, the choreography; we had to learn as we went. We were at the start of it all. We started it. Not the Temptations, as it's been told; not the Supremes, as it's been told; and not Stevie Wonder, as it's been told.
"We like the idea you're telling, the original story, performing the truth. This story has never been told."
Last Friday night, Now That I Can Dance opened to a packed house in the DIA's Detroit Film Theatre. The frenzy in the lobby wasn't such a surprise.
Before the house lights came down, within the first few rows, some original Motown singers and faculty mixed it up. There was original Marvelette Wanda Young, who married her longtime boyfriend Bobby Rogers, an original member of the Miracles. The graceful beauty that is Maxine Powell, at 88 years old, sat among other Motown producers, musicians, friends and family. At one point, it seemed the family representing Florence Ballard had to fend off some diehard fan. And, of course, also there with loved ones, were Vandellas Beard-Helton and Ashford-Holmes, Contour Billingslea and that one very important Marvelette
A feature-length play featuring an all-youth cast that works just as well for adults as it does for even elementary-aged audiences is a tall order, especially when the production involves themes such as mental illness, physical abuse, violent bigotry, broken hearts and fractured friendships. But that's exactly what Mosaic does, and Now That I Can Dance shows the Mosaic company at its best.
With well-honed humor and well-toned drama, the early Motown story is unfurled through the perspective of Anderson and the Marvelettes, though we get plenty of the Miracles, Vandellas and Contours, as well as Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells. And if there were an antagonist, it'd be the original diva herself, Diana Ross.
It's hard to say if the acting or singing is better. On one hand, there were times when you had to remind yourself that these actors aren't even out of high school yet. But being that the audience knows the rhythms and lyrics to every song in the production, it's safe to say the play delivers the purest form of fun when they're singing.
Now That I Can Dance chronicles the early years of Motown, when Marvin Gaye wanted to be "the colored Sinatra," Martha Reeves was a secretary, and Berry Gordy was just beginning to build the foundation of an immense culture-shifting factory in what looked like just another house on West Grand Boulevard.
If you're reading this as a Detroiter, Now That I Can Dance is, in a way, also your story. It's set in a time when our nation's social fabric was being tested and torn, yet the American Dream was coming alive one song at a time in the Motor City.
Given the state of bewildering social, political, economic and racial polarization that exists today, this production reminds us of the magic we're capable of making in the midst of it all.
Travis Wright is arts & culture editor at Metro Times. Send letter to email@example.com
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