Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Motown the Musical Rocks San Francisco
Orpheum Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Buyer & Cellar

Clifton Oliver and Allison Semmes
The touring production of Motown the Musical has launched its stay at the Orpheum Theatre like gangbusters. This is the speed-dating version of the history of Motown Records. It's an almost three hour show that takes on the gigantic task of telling the story of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and the label's many groups and stars throughout the decades. You will hear close to 60 songs with most in abbreviated form sung by actors portraying Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and of course The Jackson 5, and Diana Ross and the Supremes.

The scenes whizz by in evenly chronological order, with moments of social history shown through archival video on the excellent set. The audience sees the professional and personal associations of Berry Gordy with Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Clifton Oliver capably develops his character of Berry Gordy while Allison Semmes is wonderful as the legendary Diana Ross.

Motown the Musical gets off to a great start with the The Four Tops and The Temptations in a battle of the bands knocking out snippets of soul hits at breakneck speed before reverting to Gordy's beginnings and how he got an $800 loan from his family to start the record company. We learn of the many artists and business people who made the record company grow at a time of segregation and civil unrest.

The production has amazing singers and dancers. The song selections are from the Motown catalog ranging from late 1950s Jackie Wilson to the early '80s Teena Marie and Rick James. The heart of this musical is its energy and the momentum of Gordy's talent for seeking out and shaping exceptional artists with unique sounds. The music is a close reproduction which should satisfy everyone who loves the beat of Motown music.

There are many highlights, including Allison Semmes beautifully channeling the legendary Diana Ross, singing "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" with audience participation. Young Leon Outlaw Jr. is charismatic as the young Michael Jackson. He yowls through Jackson 5 hits like "I Want You Back," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There." Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye gives a compelling rendition of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." Nicholas Christopher rocks as Smokey Robinson and has powerful vocal chops on "You've Really Got a Hold on Me."

Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams devised energetic choreography for the 20-member cast who portray nearly 100 characters to dizzying effect. The costumes by Esosa are authentic dress from the late 1950s through the '80s and David Korins' dynamic set design is perfect for "Hitsville U.S.A," with colorful video graphics and real photos from the era. Charles Randolph-Wright directs this fast-paced look at the history of Motown Records.

Motown the Musical plays through September 28th, 2014, at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco. For tickets and schedule call 888-746-1799 or visit For more information on the tour, visit

Photo: Joan Marcus

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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