Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Motown the Musical
National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Glensheen, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, The Comedy of Errors, and Richard III


Chester Gregory (center right) as Berry Gordy, and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
Motown the Musical—what a great idea, right? The artists who wrote and recorded for Motown are among America's most beloved popular music stars, such as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Motown was a large part of America's soundtrack through the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s. And those great songs, dozens of songs, recognizable from their first three chords, songs that seem to never grow old. What more could a show need?

Motown the Musical opened in April 2013, an eye-popping musical with non-stop movement, color, visual imagery (courtesy of Daniel Brodie's virtuoso projection design), and, of course, endless music. However, it lacked a book able to draw audiences into the Motown story. The book is by Berry Gordy, who parlayed an $800 loan from his family in 1957 into Motown, in its heyday the most profitable minority-owned business in America, and a name synonymous with classy pop music that proved it was possible for African-American performers to truly bridge the divide between black and white entertainment. It plays as a self-scribed homage to his genius, instincts and tenacity, and as a love letter to his legacy, but offers surprising little drama. The result is a show that works as a great musical evening, but runs cold as a work of musical theater. Motown was overshadowed at award season by two other shows that opened that same month, Kinky Boots and Matilda, and ran 21 months, a respectable but not smashing success.

Last summer, Motown was back on Broadway for a "limited" return run that was met with little interest and closed after just a few weeks. However, that production did launch a second national tour, now playing at the Orpheum Theatre, the final show of Hennepin Theatre Trust's 2016-2017 U.S. Bank Broadway on Hennepin season. The majority of the audience on opening night were responding with love and joy, clearly reveling in the sounds of Motown. I, too, loved all of that, but at the end of the evening felt let down, feeling that beneath the high octane showmanship was little heart.

That is all the more disappointing considering how much heart and heat resides in so many of the great songs heard throughout the show, songs like "My Guy," "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'," "Dancing in the Street," My Girl," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Stop in the Name of Love," "Ball of Confusion," "I Want You Back," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," "What's Going On?," "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and so many more—59 songs in all, though many are heard only as excerpts, as part of a medley or montage scenes showing the rise of Motown and its stable of artists.

The song given the most time is "Reach Out and Touch," in an extended scene in which Diana Ross launches her solo career apart from The Supremes at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, walking onto the orchestra floor to recruit volunteers to sing the refrain, coaching the audience to join hands and sway back and forth. That scene depicts the transformation of a black girl group's lead singer into the epitome of universal feminine glamour and celebrity, with Ross wearing a crystal-studded gown, her hair unbelievably full and silky. In that moment, Diana Ross, the greatest star in the Motown galaxy, represents black culture crossing over, not into a great artistic stratosphere but rather into the realm of slick, manipulative entertainment, aiming to dazzle as it tugs at our heartstrings without causing us to think or feel deeply.

Diana Ross famously became Berry Gordy's love interest for several years, and the rise and fall of that relationship is presented in book scenes that feel unfortunately wooden, lacking the spontaneity of real people experiencing real joys and sorrows. Similarly, Motown makes reference to other human dramas within the Motown family: Supremes vocalist Florence Ballard's fall from grace, Motown artists' anxiety over playing the Jim Crow south, the tension over Gordy's creative control felt by many of the Motown artists, Marvin Gaye's insistence that Gordy allow him to record songs dealing candidly with the hot-button issues of the day, and the Hollywood establishment's resistance to Gordy entering the ranks of film producers with Lady Sings the Blues starring Ross. While the words describe what was hard about each incident, or what made it a breakthrough, they do not convey the emotion of the moment, or draw the audience in to not only understand, but to feel.

The voices pouring their souls into those songs are terrific, especially in the lead roles—Chester Gregory as Berry Gordy, Allison Semmes (a returnee from the first national tour) as Diana Ross, David Kaverman as Smokey Robinson, and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye. They do as well in the book scenes as can be hoped for, given the material. Raymond Davis Jr. brings the house down as young Michael Jackson, performing several of the Jackson Five's early hits. The remainder of the large cast play multiple roles, most of them taking on a lead singer or soloist in one group, while playing a backup singer (listed in the program as a "Four Top" or a "Vandella" or a "Marvelette") in others, as well as portraying various music producers, agents, DJs, members of the Gordy family, and a comical riff on Ed Sullivan.

Not only does the ensemble sound great, but they move like dervishes, through choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams that brims over with energy and sexuality. None of the dance is used to advance the story, but it provides the Motown songbook with a heart-thumping physical presence on stage. The rhythmic movements of group members (those "Four Tops" or "Vandellas" or "Marvelettes" again) as their songs are performed go above and beyond the originals, raising the entertainment quotient ever higher. Charles Randolph Wright, an esteemed stage director, has helmed the musical with an eye for celebrating everything going for it, and moving quickly past the leaden book scenes.

Design work is all in good hands, with costumes by Emilio Sosa that reflect the times as they changed, from jacket and tie and puffy chiffon dresses through the groovy mid-1960s, the rebellious late '60s and early '70s, the disco-driven late '70s, greatly augmented by Charles G. LaPointe's hair and wig design. The minimal set is magnified greatly by Daniel Brodie's constant projections, showing locations, historical figures, and psychedelic patterns familiar to anyone who attended the era's rock concerts, all in synch with Natasha Katz' expert lighting design. Peter Hylenski's sound design does a solid job of mixing the music and voices in just the right balance.

For Motown the Musical, the bottom line is, go if you harbor nostalgia for the songs and the performers who made them hits. You are likely to love it, and at the least, will have a good time. If you are hoping for something that conveys with more feeling the connection between the music and the changing nation that was listening to it, you may be disappointed. Is the music enough? That's your call. It is telling that a friend of mine mentioned this evening that he saw a good concert last night. When I asked him what concert it was he said Motown. He acknowledged that it was supposed to be a musical, but it seemed that thinking of it as a concert allowed him to enjoy it a lot more.

Motown the Musical runs through July 16, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $134.00. For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.motownthemusical.com.

Book: Berry Gordy, based on his book To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, the Memories of Motown; Music and Lyrics: The Motown Catalog; Director: Charles Randolph-Wright; Choreography: Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams; Staged by: Schele Williams; Set Design: David Korins; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Natasha Katz; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Projection Design: Daniel Brodie; Hair and Wig Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Music Supervision and Arrangements: Ethan Popp; Additional Arrangements: Bryan Crook; Dance Music Arrangements: Zane Mark; Musical Director and Conductor: Darryl Archibald; Script Consultants: David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan; Creative Consultant: Christie Burton; Casting: Wojcik - Seay Casting; Production Stage Manager and Supervisor: Anna R. Kaltenbach; Production Manager: Rhys Williams; Executive Producer: Nansci Neiman-LeGette

Cast: Malcolm Armwood (Levi Stubbs, Rick James, ensemble), Raymond Davis Jr. * (Young Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson), Judith Franklin (Edna Anderson, Anna Gordy, Martha Reeves, ensemble), Jeremy Gaston (Lamont Dozier, ensemble), Chester Gregory (Berry Gordy), Garfield Hammonds (Pop Gordy, David Ruffin, Martin Luther King Jr., Jermaine Jackson, ensemble), LaTrisa Harper (Gwen Gordy, Mary Wells, Cindy Birdsong, ensemble), Jared Howelton (Dennis Edwards, Brian Holland, ensemble), Louis James Jackson (Eddie Holland, ensemble), David Kaverman (Smokey Robinson), Elijah Ahmad Lewis (Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, ensemble), Jasmine Maslanova-Brown (Landlady, Teena Marie ensemble), Jarran Muse (Marvin Gaye), Ramone Owens (Robert Gordy, Melvin Franklin, ensemble), Devin L. Price (ensemble), Tavia Riveé (Mother Gordy, Mary Wilson), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross), Kimberly Ann Steele (Esther Gordy, Lula Hardaway, ensemble), Doug Storm (Ed Sullivan, Harold Noveck, Shelly Berger, Dudley Buell), Daniel Robert Sullivan (Roger Campbell, Jackie Wilson's manager, studio head, Tom Clay, Barney Ales, pirate DJ), Gabriella Whiting (Suzanne De Passe, Florence Ballard), C.J. Wright * (Young Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson), Ricardo A. Zayas (Fuller Gordy, ensemble). * alternate performances


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