Caution—anyone attending a performance of the new show, Motown – the Musical, be prepared for leg cramps from unceasing foot tapping to the Motown sound.
Motown – The Musical, the lone jukebox production of the 2012-13 season, is rollicking, exuberant fun as a cavalcade of actors portrays Motown artists from the label’s beginnings through the early 1980’s. The musical, like the long-running Jersey Boys, is built upon a wisp of a narrative thread. Here, it chronicle’s how Berry Gordy built Motown records into a recording powerhouse during the first 25 years of its existence. The book of the show, written by Gordy, serves not as a full-fledged history lesson, but more as a way to introduce the singers and musical groups that became part of the Motown family over this time-span. Here’s Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Jackson 5, and many more. They perform dozens of songs—some in their entirety, others short snippets—that we still listen and dance to today.
The show starts off with The Four Tops and Temptations in a flashy sing-off as they rehearse for the Motown 25 Years TV Special. The stars of Motown past assemble for the gala, but Berry Gordy is in his home study, agitated and hurt, refusing to attend. He harbors many hard feelings towards the performers he discovered and nurtured. Many had deserted the label over the years for bigger contracts elsewhere. Why should be attend even though it is about his legacy? From there, the musical transports us back 25 years as Gordy begins his dream of building his own record company. The show ends as it began—at the Motown 25 Year TV Special.
Gordy, as book writer, doesn’t pull his punches. He comes off as madly driven to succeed, someone who can identify and cultivate talent, and a control freak. The seamier side of the business is not spared as lawsuits and countersuits crop up in the latter part of the show. But the episodic nature of the production serves, primarily, to introduce a plethora of musical numbers that leave the audience wanting more. The songs incorporated into the show are too numerous to list. Instead, let me focus on the actors that stood out in the show. They include Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross. From naïve teenager to adult superstar she truly embodied the soul of the talented diva. Jibreel Mawry, as the young Michael Jackson, almost steals the show. When The Jackson Five are first introduced, and Mawry begins belting out one of their hits, and putting on the moves, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre rocks to its very foundation. Other notables in the cast include Charl Brown as the silky smooth Smokey Robinson and Bryan Terrell Clark as the rebellious, sexy Marvin Gaye.
Brandon Victor Dixon gives a credible performance as the temperamental and intensely driven Berry Gordy. He can be forceful, manipulative, and forgiving in the stretch of one scene.
Motown – the Musical has an extremely large cast, which enhances the large production numbers, athletic and powerful, choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. While the large ensemble pieces are energetic and spirited the dance routines crafted for the various Motown artists are more satisfying.
David Korins’ sparse set design actually enhances the production, allowing us to focus on the performers. Esosa’s costumes, on the other hand, are flamboyant, rich, and incredibly sequined. They truly give you a feel for that era’s over-the-top fashion statement.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright’s main function is to keep the storyline moving, not allowing it to bog down until the next song is presented. He handles the assignment with aplomb, never allowing the almost three hour musical to seem heavy or unappealing.
Motown- the Musical—it will leave you with a smile on your face, some soul in your heart, and a twinkle in your toes.