Theatre Reviews

Given that Motown Records founder Berry Gordy literally wrote the book for Motown: The Musical, based on his own autobiography, it's not too surprising that the somewhat preachy and awkward script often feels more like hagiography than a conventional musical. 

Fortunately, there's not that much of it. The sketchy story of Motown's rise from small-time recording studio in the back of a modest two-story building on West Grand in Detroit (dubbed "Hitsville U.S.A." by Gordy) to a major independent label serves mostly as a backdrop for performances of over fifty Motown classics by a remarkable cast doing virtuoso celebrity impersonations of artists made famous by the label, including Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and The Temptations.

Yes, the script often rises above the level of the typical jukebox musical by placing many of the songs in their historical contexts, including the civil rights struggle and the political turbulence of the 1960s. But make no mistake about it; this is ultimately a celebration of the music that those of us of a Certain Age grew up with, from straightforward hits like "Please Mr. Postman" and "I Can't Get Next to You" to protest classics like "What's Goin' On" and "War." As the happy response from the opening night audience made clear, it was the music that kept everyone clapping, smiling, and even singing (although that required a bit more prompting).

Chester Gregory, who played Berry Gordy on Broadway last summer, reprises the role here and made a powerful impression on opening night. His performance, late in the show, of "Can I Close the Door," one of only three songs written specifically for the show, was a passionate crowd pleaser. Allison Semmes' Diana Ross was equally impressive, easily capturing the charisma and vocal power that made the real Ross a superstar. The brief scene in which she played Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues was especially remarkable. How "meta" can you get?

Jarran Muse captures the angry intensity of Marvin Gaye perfectly, including a compelling a cappella version of "Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)," a song which, sadly, is as relevant now as it was in 1971. David Kaverman, meanwhile, makes a strong Equity debut as a cheerful Smokey Robinson.

Probably the single most engaging performance, if the audience response was any indication, came from 11-year-old CJ Wright/12-year-old Raymond Davis Jr. as the young Michael Jackson. He had the voice and the moves down pat and had the crowd in the palm of his diminutive hand.

Speaking of having moves down pat, congratulations are also due to the ensemble members who wowed the crowd with their smooth vocals and impressive dancing as they took on the personas of stars like Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells as well as famous groups like The Temptations, The Commodores, The Contours, and of course, The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. A tip of the hat is also due to Doug Storm for his hilarious Ed Sullivan.

Technically, Motown: The Musical runs like a well-oiled machine under Charles Randolph-Wright's expert direction. Digitally projected sets make the frequent scene changes fast and fluid while striking animation sequences vividly evoke everything from Vietnam War protests to the flashy backdrops of the Hollywood Palace TV show. Down in the pit, Darryl Archibald conducts the small band in high-energy performances of all that well-known music. And the choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams perfectly captures the styles of the '60s and '70s.

 Motown: The Musical premiered on Broadway in 2013, it got a bad rap from some New York critics who were apparently expecting a more conventional book musical. They were right to criticize the flimsy characters and clunky dialog, but they were also missing the whole point of the show. Motown is all about the music Gordy and his performers made famous, and all about recreating a time when black performers were breaking the color barriers in entertainment and taking control of their own careers. Motown: The Musical is a celebration of the songs that had us all, as the exuberant final number reminds us, "Dancing in the Streets."

It's also a reminder of how far we have come as a nation from the days when white radio stations refused to play what they called "race" records and when audiences were segregated by skin color. With all of that progress now under attack at the national level, Motown: The Musical's message of inclusiveness feels more timely than ever.

Motown: The Musical runs through Sunday, March 26, at the Fox Theatre in Grand Center. Note that evening performances start at 7:30.  

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