Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Motown the Musical
National Tour


The Cast
It's time to celebrate: Motown the Musical is out on tour with a large cast and a great-looking production. At two hours and fifty minutes, it's nevertheless a fast-paced crowd pleaser.

On the other hand, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, Mr. Berry Gordy. Yes, he's the founder of the Motown label and the producing genius who molded the sound that still delights audiences. But, he's also one of the producers of Motown the Musical, and he wrote the show's book, based on his memoir modestly titled "To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown." It's pretty clear that audiences are in for an evening of fantasy, as far as the story goes.

That story is told in flashback, and its primary dramatic tension comes from whether Mr. Gordy will make an appearance at a show celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Motown label. In making his decision, Gordy (Julius Thomas III) thinks back to how the label began as part of a young man's search for success after failing at several other potential occupations. There are memories of his early friendship with Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager), his discovery of a variety of acts, including the Supremes, his romantic relationship with Supremes lead singer Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), and his frustration with Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), who has married into Gordy's family but consistently wants to go his own way.

And, of course, the early history of the label is set against the political and social turmoil of the 1960s. To Mr. Gordy's credit, the Motown sound helped to break the color barrier on radio and became beloved by a diverse audience.

That's still true today, as Motown's fans love the music no matter what. And that's easy to do in this show, with the performance of portions of sixty different numbers, including three contemporary ones written by Mr. Gordy and Michael Lovesmith. The roster of groups making appearances is awfully impressive, including the Commodores, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the overwhelming audience favorite, the Jackson Five.

The production team, under Charles Randolph-Wright's direction, has lovingly recreated both the sound (credit Ethan Popp with musical supervision and arrangements, a tough task on this show) and the look of the acts (credit Esosa's costume design, and especially Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams' choreography, which, if it doesn't recreate exactly how the various acts moved, gets the style right). With such dedicated fans, the small details count big because fans remember them precisely.

Mr. Randolph-Wright doesn't let things drag, and he's helped by David Korins' scenic design and Natasha Katz's lighting design, both of which allow for quick and smooth scene changes and keep the show looking sharp as the story moves through a variety of locales. Peter Hylenski's sound design balances the 15-piece band's sound with the singers, a real feat for San Diego's Civic Theatre, where sound has not always been ideal.

Each of the principal performers gets a character arc, albeit not a challenging one—the show's really about the music, and rightly so. Ms. Semmes, Mr. Nager, and Mr. Muse all sing in the styles of their characters, and they do so in very satisfying fashion. Ms. Semmes gets a segment where she shows how Diana Ross connected with audiences after she became a solo act. It seemed silly when it started, but it turned into an emotional highlight of the show and served to kick audience response into high gear from that point forward.

A large ensemble provides enough flexibility to move performers through the secondary roles, and there were several substitutions in the opening night performance I saw, without any noticeable degrading of quality.

Motown the Musical runs through June 14, 2015. Opening night was heavily sold, so if you haven't got tickets yet, I'd get a move on.

Tickets are available at the Civic Theatre box office, 1100 Third Avenue, in downtown San Diego, by phone at (619) 570-1100, or online at sandiegotheatres.org. For more information, visit http://www.motownthemusical.com.

Broadway/San Diego presents Motown the Musical at the Civic Theatre. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, with David Korins (Scenic Design), Esosa (Costume Design), Natasha Katz (Lighting Design), Peter Hylenski (Sound Design), Daniel Brodie (Projection Design), Ethan Popp (Music Supervision and Arrangements) and Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams (Choreography). The principal performers are Julius Thomas III (Berry Gordy), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross), Jesse Nager (Smokey Robinson), and Jarran Muse (Marvin Gaye). The production also features a large performing ensemble.


Photo: Joan Marcus.

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- Bill Eadie


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