By: David Sheward
The song list alone is staggering. More than 50 titles are crammed into Motown the Musical, the new retrospective jukebox musical celebrating the legendary R&B entertainment giant. If this were a revue, there would be no problem with the embarrassment of riches. But it’s a book musical purporting to tell the story of Motown’s founder Berry Gordy Jr., from his early days as a struggling songwriter to his final triumph as head of a multimillion-dollar brand.
Gordy is not only the main character, he’s also the author of the book, which is based on his memoir To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. His libretto, dotted with dozens of hits from the label’s stunning history, comes across as an antidote to Dreamgirls, the fictional version of the label’s rise and that of its biggest stars Diana Ross and the Supremes. In that fabulous show, the Gordy character is conniving and manipulative. Here he’s a saint whose worst flaw is his tremendous work ethic.
The story starts with the conventional choice of a TV special commemorating Motown’s 25th anniversary. An embattled Gordy, fighting to keep his company from being swallowed up by conglomerates, refuses to attend. As his numerous co-workers and artists including Smokey Robinson attempt to persuade Gordy to make an appearance, he naturally flashes back to his Detroit childhood in 1938 and we’re off on a memory tour. We race through the beginnings of Motown, tours through the segregated South, guest shots on The Ed Sullivan Show, Gordy’s stormy romance with Diana Ross, the turbulent ’60s, race riots, the discovery of the Jackson Five, movie production with Lady Sings the Blues, reinvention with funk, and on and dizzingly on.
So much music and incident is stuffed into the show’s two hours and 45 minutes, it’s like one of those PBS fundraisers on which hot groups from the past alternate with testimonials on how wonderful the producing entity is. But Motown’s main audience probably will not be musical theater purists but fans of the catalogue who will want to relive their youth. That’s the appeal of still-running smashes that include Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, and Motown will probably be joining them on the hit list.
Thanks to a spectacularly talented cast, efficient direction by Charles Randolph-Wright, Peter Hylenski’s superb sound design, and the flashy choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, even though the book falls short, Motown does not disappoint musically. The re-creation of gold-plated standards "Stop in the Name of Love," "My Momma Told Me," and "Do You Love Me" at least evoke the originals.
There are a few moments that are more than just "Greatest Hits" retreads, though. Bryan Terrell Clark channels the aching despair of Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Goin’ On," while young Raymond Luke Jr. (who alternates with Jibreel Mawry) delivers an amazing Michael Jackson on "I’ll Be There." Marva Hicks, Saycon Sengbloh, and Ariana DeBose also display impressive voices. The sequence depicting the Motortown Revue’s 1962 performance in a hostile Birmingham, Ala., imparts simmering racial tension and breaks out of the show’s breakneck, "Let’s hit all the high points" pattern.
Valisia LeKae has Diana Ross’s vocals down pat, but in her extensive book scenes, LeKae is imitating Ross rather than playing her. As Gordy, Brandon Victor Dixon has the onerous task of carrying the heavy storyline while the rest of the company gets to cut loose and just sing their lungs out. An experienced professional, Dixon pulls his difficult assignment off with flair, endowing this cardboard version of a real-life showbiz icon with grit, passion, and some of the complexities Gordy left out of his book.
April 14, 2013
Opened April 14 for an open run. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $57-142. (877) 250-2929.
Follow Us On Facebook
Originally Published on April 14, 2013 in ArtsinNY.com