Motown: The Musical is a Broadway jukebox musical. With a book by Berry Gordy, based on his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. The musical is based on the story of Gordy’s founding and running of the Motown record label, and his personal and professional relationships with Motown artists, such as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and The Jackson 5. The music and lyrics for the musical are taken from selections from the Motown catalog. The musical contains a total of 66 songs. The musical premiered on Broadway in April 2013.
The story starts in 1983, where Barry Gordy is trying to be convinced, by his inner circle, to attend the 25th anniversary of Motown Records at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where all the stars he created are coming back to celebrate and say, thank you. Then we jump to a flashback, and watch how the whole thing happened. From a young man who tried many careers, he finally got the idea to start a record label, and finally convinced his family to give him $1000 of their savings, to create Hitsville, U.S.A.. The show comes across mostly as a montage jukebox musical, with most of the songs coming in snippets, and just a few songs given the full attention they deserve. Just when your motor is running, there is a lane change, and then you start all over again. However, when the full song is realized, it is glorious. And, the choreography and costumes are fierce. In fact, the first time the show really takes flight is “Dancing in the Streets”, where the whole song and dance is allowed to overtake the audience with crazy energy and love, and the audience goes nuts. There could be many more moments like that, but in between long stretches of snippets, come these amazing full blown numbers that are magic, and completely worth the wait.
Clifton Oliver is dynamic, handsome, and richly voiced as Berry Gordy. This man can “sang” and then some. He creates a very compact and charismatic character, and holds the audience in his palm with his incredible voice. Allison Semmes is perfect as Diana Ross, or “Miss Ross”. She doesn’t try to oversell the impersonation, and finds every unique quality of the star without becoming a caricature. Her voice is beautifully strong and communicative. And in one of the best moments of the show, she interacts with the audience during “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand”, and creates magic and fun for days. Nicholas Christopher is delightful as Smokey Robinson. He nails the down the earth nature of Smokey, and also the enigmatic voice that pierces your soul and takes you on a swoon journey, or makes your feet move to the beat. Jarran Muse handles the swagger of Marvin Gaye, along with his soul and sexiness, perfectly. A velvet voice, but also gives weight to Gaye’s concern over the political events that were affecting the times, and him personally. Reed L. Shannon owned the audience portraying little Michael Jackson. He is a human fireball of charm, talent, moves and falsetto.
So the show is really a celebration of song, a brief overview of the story of Motown, covering details without too much of the drama. But what I also saw, were the lessons that were addressed in Gordy’s story. Learning that you can work your whole life to make someone successful, but when money talks, they can leave you. And, it is OK if they do, because that is just part of the business. The show also covers racism. It is embarrassing to sit in a predominately white audience, and watch how many of our past generation treated black people. Seeing “White Only” signs on the projected backgrounds, as Gordy worked ferociously to make his music available to all races. It is a lesson. This is a happy musical, but I didn’t leave without realizing how brave those artists were, as they trail-blazed a path of hope for many others behind them.
This is a great ride, and you should be sure to take the journey. And, they have those super big soft pretzels. Thank you.
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