Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Motown the Musical
Motown the Musical, at Hartford's Bushnell through March 27th, zips through about 60 tunes as this history of a music genre is spectacularly explored. At times, it all feels like interface between a terrific talent show and a very up-tempo sporting event. Berry Gordy (played by actor Chester Gregory) provides the show's book. The production, through music, dance, and image projection, focuses upon Berry as prime mover. The current tour features reams of performers who can sing sweetly and/or zestfully. The audience, primed to vocalize and participate, is granted that opportunity.
The first 90 minutes of Motown describe the Detroit origins of the music. Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson, and Martina Sykes as Mary Wells are present. Early on, a wide variety of performers (making it difficult to identify by name) come on stage as, for example, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Miracles, and more. Educational and highly charged, the musical is often engaging. To be sure, some sections work more proficiently than others.
If you are one to rejoice in oldies, the show is a feast, inclusive of "Dancing in the Streets," "My Girl," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "I Hear a Symphony," "Shop Around," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and many, many others. Here is a musing: what might have been the result if the plotline and backstory were drastically reducedto fully concentrate on a straight-ahead revue? Instead, through imagery, the audience gets a sprinkling of cultural and political backdrop: Black Power, the Vietnam War, assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK. Further, Motown the Musical follows Gordy's initiative and completion of his purpose: getting the songs out there and a subsequent move to Los Angeles. His vision, though, suffers through the evolution.
Gordy and Supremes star Diana Ross (the captivating Allison Semmes) fall for one another, but their relationship, in time, fractures. Watch for the semi-serious, semi-comic bedroom scene which drew loud responses from the opening night audience at the Bushnell. The conflict between artistic and commercial success, too, becomes a major issue. Semmes, wonderfully poised and equally gifted, leads the entire audience in "Reach Out and Touch."
Absolutely stealing the spotlight as a young Michael Jackson is Leon Outlaw, Jr., wowing the crowd with voice and presence. Jesse Nager is a convincing Smokey Robinson but doesn't receive sufficient opportunity on vocals. Elijah Ahmad Lewis brings his Stevie Wonder to life and light with understanding and ability.
Charles Randolph-Wright, directing, does well to jam all of the material into a mere three hours. To be fully inclusive of the implications in terms of societal effect, the production might have doubled in time, which would be prohibitive. Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, sharing credit for choreography, supply some nifty moves for nimble, fleet actors. Ethan Popp provides splendid musical arrangements.
Motown the Musical amps up the decibels from time to time but the artists manage to carry through, in fine fashion, on vocals. Lighting designer Natasha Katz is an asset, as her choices fuel different numbers. David Korins' sets for the tour allow room for cast members and all of the glorious, sometimes classic tunes to rightfully dominate from start to finish. You have to love Esosa's period costumes!
In all, this production is fully capable of rocking a house. It compels one to not simply tap a foot every so often. Rather, more theatergoers will surely lift themselves out of their seats to dance in place; or literally join in on something like "Baby, I Need Your Loving."
Motown the Musical continues its run at the Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut through March 27th, 2016. For tickets, visit bushnell.org or call (860) 987-5900. For more information on the tour, visit www.motownthemusical.com.