It’s been almost a decade since Daniel Robert Sullivan performed professionally in Kansas City. After earning a master’s in fine arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2006, he eventually moved out of town and landed a role that would define his career — Tommy Devito in “Jersey Boys.”
But now Sullivan will return to a place he considers one of his homes with the tour of “Motown: The Musical,” hitting Starlight Theatre starting Tuesday. As one of only two white actors in the show, he plays multiple characters, most notably Barney Ales, the right-hand man of Motown founder Berry Gordy.
The ensemble work has been a welcome change from his recurring “Jersey Boys” role in Las Vegas, Toronto and an international promo tour, he said.
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“To be frank, it’s a less important role than I played in ‘Jersey Boys,’ but it’s one that meant a lot to me because I believe in the message of the show,” Sullivan said. “It’s more creative day-to-day, doing it this way.”
Sullivan is just one of the 29 cast members who play a total of 129 characters in the show, which traces the rise of Motown Records in Detroit. Gordy’s journey to discover talents such as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and more is accompanied by famous Motown tunes. (It’s the final show in a slew of catalog musicals to hit town this summer.)
Sullivan joined the show in December. It’s been touring nationally since 2014 (when it played KC’s Music Hall), with plans to continue new legs indefinitely, said associate director Schele Williams. Williams has been a part of the show since its Broadway opening in 2013 and re-staged it for the tour. She said the musical is now a more fluid and effective piece, thanks to new technology and tweaks.
“I think, as artists, our goal is to keep refining and making things better, and I feel like we don’t settle for, ‘Well, we’ve already done it once,’” she said. “We always keep looking at it and saying, ‘How can this be better?’”
“Better” for this tour, for example, includes new LED panels that create seemingly 3-D images to instantly change around settings and locations — integral for a show that jumps from Gordy’s early childhood to the founding of Motown to a 25-year anniversary celebration.
“Motown” contains 66 songs in partiality or in full. Perhaps the show’s pivotal moment is Marvin Gaye’s political protest song “What’s Going On,” performed at the end of Act 1 as Detroit’s 1967 race riots begin. Williams said the moment has only gained gravity.
“I was at the Broadway show on the night Trayvon Martin was killed, and when they sang that song, tears were streaming down the cast’s faces,” she said. “The (tour) cast was in Ferguson when the riots broke out, and we didn’t know whether the show was going to get canceled that night.
“There are moments where you realize that, in 1971, when Marvin Gaye was saying these words, they feel like they were written yesterday,” she said.
Sullivan said he felt the same way when performing with the cast in Tampa, Fla., after the Charlottesville violence on Aug. 12.
“The fact that Marvin Gaye can sing a song called ‘What’s Going On,’ which expresses the questioning people have — What could possibly be going on in my city? What is causing this riot in my city? — he wrote that song in the ’60s, and it is still 100 percent applicable today,” Sullivan said. “We all want to know what’s going on in Virginia — how could it possibly get to this point in our country today? I think we haven’t fixed our root causes, but Motown Records is one of the places that tried to fix it.”
While “Motown” certainly has political overtones, it’s still a family-friendly show that will leave many audience members dancing and singing in their seat, said Williams. Even younger audiences who don’t know exactly who Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye are may recognize the songs and learn how they came to be.
“Motown is the soundtrack of America,” Williams said. “It seems more relevant than ever, but it also celebrates kids from the neighborhood that had a talent — and when you harness a group of people who are songwriters, producers and musicians and you put all that together, what you make can be so extraordinary.”
For Sullivan, who grew up in Rhode Island, this stop in Kansas City is a way of coming full circle with the talent he developed locally. While his professional work included the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the New Theatre Restaurant and the Coterie, he’s never performed at Starlight. He is equally excited and apprehensive at the potential challenges of an outdoor theater (bats and raccoons, anyone?).
In addition to eating some local barbeque (Arthur Bryant’s, by the way), he’s ready to be back in the town where he can see some of his greatest mentors and made his professional start.
“Kansas City is a great town, an artistic town,” he said. “I’m very grateful for everything it’s provided for me.”
“Motown the Musical” runs Aug. 22-27 at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.