Motown: The Musical
Music by: Songs from the Motown catalog
Book by: Berry Gordy
Based on the book: To Be Loved: The Music, The Memories Of Motown by Berry Gordy
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Location: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre 205 W 46th St New York, NY 10036 (212) 575-9200
Set Designer: David Korins, Lighting: Natasha Katz, Costumes: ESosa, Sound Design: Peter Hylenski
Starring Charl Brown, Bryan Terrell Clark, Brandon Victor Dixon, Valisia LeKae
The Love You Save
Like many jukebox musicals, record mogul Berry Gordy’s autobiographical extravaganza is designed to work within certain limitations. One is that the songs are largely incidental to the story. The characters sing because they’re singers, not, as in a traditional musical, to move the plot along or reveal their inner longings. Another is what might be termed the sound-alike factor. In a revival of, say, Cabaret actors are expected to re-imagine their roles. But in the world of bio-musicals, impersonation is emphasized over interpretation. The good news here is that the cast of Motown The Musical more than rises to the occasion. Raymond Luke, Jr. is especially magical as the young Michael Jackson, but he is not alone. All the actors shine in their respective roles and exhibit tremendous enthusiasm for the music. Their efforts are bolstered by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams’s choreography and Ethan Popp’s faithful recreation of the lush production values that distinguished the Motown sound. The book is written with refreshing self-awareness by Gordy himself, with consultations by David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan. It’s a well-structured and charming, if somewhat sanitized take on Motown’s history (no one here touches drugs or has an extramarital affair), and the central framing device works well.
The story begins in 1983, when a gala concert is scheduled in honor of Motown’s 25th anniversary. All the big stars will be there, but the very man whose name is synonymous with the legendary label refuses to attend. Embittered and abandoned, Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon) wants nothing to do with the super-talents he discovered and nurtured, only to watch them seek bigger paydays elsewhere. Even the company is a shadow of its former self as independent labels are being run off the road by the few huge conglomerates that control everything. The only person who may be able to turn Gordy around is his old pal Smoky Robinson (Charl Brown). Present at Motown’s inception and loyal to the end, Smoky grabs Berry’s attention. Thus begins a recap of the struggles, triumphs and cultural impact of Gordy’s brainchild.
Flashback to the 1930’s. Segregation is still going strong, but young Berry’s nurturing father encourages his children to believe that anything is possible regardless of color. After all, boxer Joe Louis has just defeated Max Schmeling, striking a history-making blow against racism everywhere. Gordy wants to follow Louis’s example, but how? As he matures he tries his hand at a variety of careers but nothing gels — until he discovers his gift for songwriting. He composes a hit for Jackie Wilson and follows it with others. Tired of sharing royalties with usurious record companies, he decides to start his own label. Skeptical at first, the family ultimately votes to help him out, and soon Berry’s vision of a star factory comes to fruition. Like sparkling new automobiles, hit after hit rolls off Motown’s assembly line. White deejays are resistant at first, but the color green trumps the others.
In the 1960’s, riot-rattled Detroit becomes a microcosm of America. Artists like Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark) and The Temptations alter their sound to respond to the turbulent times. There are tempests within the company as well. Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae) is being groomed for stardom, which doesn’t sit well with the other Supremes. She and Berry marry and are happy for a time. But when the company relocates to Los Angeles, Berry’s crazy work schedule takes its toll on the relationship. He puts together a movie deal for Diana, and she is nominated for an Oscar. As her star rises she gains the confidence to resist Berry’s controlling behavior. Marvin Gaye also feels artistically smothered, and indignantly departs for another label. The Jackson Five and other stars follow suit, and eventually even Diana leaves Motown. New artists like Rick James and Teena Marie score hits, and Smoky’s evergreen talent finds a new audience. But eventually the corporate culture of the 1980’s threatens to turn the embattled Motown into a remember-when label rather than a relevant force in the industry. Of course, no man is ever a failure who has friends, and Berry finally comes to realize what really matters in this life.
The show contains three new songs, written for this production by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith. Despite a few false rhymes, the fresh material is catchy and serves the story effectively. The rest of the selections, 54 in total, come from the Motown catalogue. Naturally only a few are performed in their entirety. The resulting kaleidoscope of excerpts is enjoyable in a dizzying sort of way. Director Charles Randolph-Wright moves the action along at such a rapid clip that its impossible not to get caught up in the show’s exuberance. Daniel Brody’s production design and Esosa’s costumes help make the brisk journey through the decades colorful and compelling. Over time, though, the evening begins to feel like those infomercials that promise “all your favorite songs in one incredible three CD collection.” Less might have been more if fewer songs had been selected for fuller renditions.
Still, one of the reasons the Detroit sound caught on is because Gordy and company knew how to have a good time. Clearly, they still do. Motown isn’t the most pioneering or flawlessly crafted show in Broadway history. But it’s not supposed to be, either. Audiences looking for a fun ride and a warm reunion with some old favorites will walk away satisfied.