Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Motown the Musical
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule
Also see Susan's review of Kiss Me, Kate
Motown the Musical, now on tour at Washington's National Theatre, is not a musical in the traditional sense as much as a pageant showing off some of the brightest jewels from the Motown catalog. Based on the audience response, with people humming along and even singing along at times with the familiar tunes, the question of where it fits is not an issue.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Motown mogul Berry Gordy (played with passion by Josh Tower) wrote the book, based on his memoir, with music and lyrics from "the legendary Motown catalog." He doesn't always present himself in the most flattering light, but the audience has to root for him as he creates musical acts that draw audiences from all races, builds an international entertainment empire, then has to keep it together as his longtime stars leave for more lucrative deals elsewhere or criticize his need to pit his groups against each other because "competition breeds champions."
The story begins in 1938 with Berry as a boy in Detroit learning about racial pride from African-American boxer Joe Louis' defeat of Nazi-backed Max Schmeling. After several false starts, he gets a foothold in show business as a songwriter but soon decides to do things his own way, joined by friends Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager, who nails the singer's smooth vocal tone), Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse in a soulful performance), and, most importantly, Diana Ross (Allison Semmes, impressive as she progresses from wide-eyed ingénue to icon).
With the help of Charles Randolph-Wright's fast-paced direction and David Korins' minimalist scenic designnot to mention Esosa's costumes that fit the period perfectly, sometimes ridiculouslythe years pass and the audience watches the growth and blossoming of the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes, and the Jackson 5. Nathaniel Cullors, who shares the role of young Michael Jackson with Douglas Baldeo and Leon Outlaw Jr., knows the moves and leads a dazzling medley of Jackson 5 hits.
The show also places the music in historical perspective, assisted by Daniel Brodie's projections. Most striking are the scenes that remind the public of the danger facing Gordy's performers in the segregated South.
Choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams have done their homework and luxuriate in the synchronized dance steps and eye-filling specialty numbers of the period. Many cast members also have the skill of beginning a song a cappella and being dead-on when the orchestra joins in.
The National Theatre
Motown the Musical
December 1st - January 3rd, 2016
Book by Berry Gordy, based on the book To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown by Berry Gordy
Music and lyrics from the Legendary Motown Catalog
Berry Gordy: Josh Tower
Diana Ross: Allison Semmes
Smokey Robinson: Jesse Nager
Marvin Gaye: Jarran Muse
Young Berry Gordy/Stevie Wonder/Michael Jackson: Douglas Baldeo, Nathaniel Cullors, Leon Outlaw Jr.
Dennis Edwards, Miracle, Mickey Stevenson, Commodore: Nik Alexander
Jackie Wilson Manager, Harold Noveck, Studio Head: Erick Buckley
Edna Anderson, Martha Reeves, Marvelette: Chante Carmel
Anna Gordy, Marvelette: Chadaé
Esther Gordy, Lula Hardaway, Gladys Knight, Vandella, Gladys Horton: Ashley Tamar Davis
Temptation, Fuller Gordy, Contour, Jackson 5: Lynorris Evans
Temptation, Contour, Jackson 5, Robert Gordy: Robert Hartwell
Mary Wilson, Mother Gordy: Dana Marie Ingraham
Lamont Dozier, David Ruffin, Commodore, Jermaine Jackson, Pip: Rodney Earl Jackson Jr.
Stevie Wonder, Levi Stubbs, Miracle, Pip, Jr. Walker Allstar: Elijah Ahmad Lewis
Contour, Eddie Holland, Frontier Announcer, Hitsville Employee: Jarvis B. Manning Jr.
Florence Ballard, Suzanne de Passe: Krisha Marcano
Temptation, Commodore, Contour, Jr. Walker: Marq Moss
Jackie Wilson, Four Top, Contour, Brian Holland, Jackson 5, Rick James: Rashad Naylor
Melvin Franklin, Miracle, Commodore: Ramone Owens
Claudette Robinson, Landlady, Teena Marie, Billie Jean Brown, Hitsville Employee, Marvelette: Olivia Puckett
Barney Ales, Roger Campbell, Tom Clay, Pirate DJ: Jamison Scott
Four Top, Norman Whitfield, Commodore: Joey Stone
Ed Sullivan, Shelly Berger, Dudley Buell: Doug Storm
Gwen Gordy, Vandella, Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wells: Martina Sykes
Four Top, Martin Luther King Jr., Pip, Miller London, Pop Gordy: Nik Walker
Swings: Stephen Cerf, Preston W. Dugger III, Anissa Felix, Talya Groves, Rod Harrelson, Moeisha McGill, Nicholas Ryan, Galen J. Williams, Syndee Winters
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Choreographed by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams
The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Ticket Information: 1-800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com