Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 14, 2013
Motown: The Musical Book by Berry Gordy. Based upon the book To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown by Berry Gordy. Music and lyrics from the legendary Motown catalog. Music by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Choreographed by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams. Music supervision & arrangements by Ethan Popp. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Esosa. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Projection design by Daniel Brodie. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Brandon Victor Dixon, Valisia LeKae, Charl Brown, Bryan Terrell Clark, Timothy J. Alex, Michael Arnold, Nicholas Christopher, Rebecca E. Covington, Ariana DeBose, Andrea Dora, Preston W. Dugger III, Wilkie Ferguson III, Dionne Figgins, Marva Hicks, Tiffany Janene Howard, Sasha Hutchings, Lauren Lim Jackson, Jawan M. Jackson, Morgan James, John Jellison, Crystal Joy, Grasan Kingsberry, Jamie LaVerdiere, Raymond Luke, Jr., Jibreel Mawry, Marielys Molina, Sydney Morton, Maurice Murphy, Jarran Muse, Jesse Nager, Milton Craig Nealy, N’Kenge Dominic Nolfi,Saycon Sengbloh, Ryan Shaw, Jamal Story, Eric LaJuan Summers, Ephraim M. Sykes, Julius Thomas III, Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber, Jr..
The scene couldn’t be simpler: the Four Tops and the Temptations are practicing their signature blockbusters. But as the lights focus and the industrial-looking set pieces slide into place around them, honing blocking and cues stops being enough. The stage explodes into a frenzy of one-upmanship, as each group tries to steal the spotlight as only it can.
“I Can’t Help Myself” melts into “Ain’t too Proud to Beg,” which in turn becomes “Baby, I Need Your Lovin’”, with “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Reach Out,” and “I Know I’m Losing You” following in seamless short order. Once individual vocalists start riffing as the groups merge into an ultra-suave nontet of shimmering sophistication, you can’t help but anticipate something more special than the populist fare the title advertises.
Then the rest of the show starts. If the rest of Motown lived up to those first three minutes — or even merely aspired to do so — the spring’s more conventional cookie-cutter musicals, Kinky Boots and Matilda, would have reason to tremble. But when the Four Tops and the Temptations vanish from the stage, they take with them all hope of originality or theatricality.
The latter might not be troublesome if this were a revue interested only in presenting a high-energy catalog from a legend-scribing 20th-century label. But no: This is a bioshow, written by Motown impresario Berry Gordy (and based on his own book, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown), about himself, the people he worked with, and the industry he changed, and that introduces countless problems — and instances of boredom.
Projects of this ilk do not avoid these issues automatically. The highest-profile one to do so, and the most artistically successful, is the still-running Jersey Boys; its book writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, knew the difficulties pop songs have of carrying unrelated story, and thus structured their work to avoid those opportunities most of the times they arose.
Introspection and insight are virtually nonexistent, and even scenes with legitimate dramatic potential (Berry bucking his family’s wishes, setting up Hitsville U.S.A., his romance with superstar-to-be Diana Ross) exist solely to serve as barely-there anchors for the songs. Example: When Berry needs a thousand dollars to launch his production company, he begs his sister Esther to the tune of “Money,” the lyrics of “That’s what I want!” as deep as the moment delves.
In fairness, at least Gordy does not paint himself as an unblemished saint. If he doesn’t dwell on many of his own warts, he also doesn’t shy from acknowledging them: his dangerous single-mindedness, trends toward exploiting the people he worked with and wrecking personal relationships, an instinct for holding back great talents (including, most notably, Ross) to burnish his own personal “brand.” Positive the show may be, but pure hagiography it is not.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright, choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, and the design team (including David Korins on sets, Esosa on costumes, and Natasha Katz on lights) have implemented an overall look and feel that recall that of the original Dreamgirls, which makes sense given its similar content (about a Supremes-like girl group in the 1960s and `70s). But the lack of any real fluidity or creativity of staging or narrative, an equivalent excitement has no chance to take hold.
This is not the fault of Dixon, who brings an immense likability and a soulful singing voice to Berry, or his costars: Valisia LeKae does a killer impersonation of Ross, and effectively mimics her smoky innocence; Charl Brown is outstanding as the ever-optimistic Smokey Robinson; Bryan Terrell Clark is pinpoint-precise as the dual-edged Marvin Gaye; and at the performance I attended, Raymond Luke, Jr. proved himself a star in the making as supercharged young versions of Berry, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. (He alternates in the role with Jibreel Mawry.)
They and the superb ensemble, however, are ultimately subordinate to the songs — and there are plenty of them: The Playbill lists an astonishing 56 classics (and three, largely negligible, new compositions, which Gordy wrote with Michael Lovesmith). You don’t tire of hearing any of them (“ABC,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Brick House,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “My Girl,” and on and on and on), especially as dynamically arranged by Ethan Popp, orchestrated by Popp and Bryan Crook, and musical directed by Joseph Joubert. But once you realize you will rarely, if ever, experience a number in its entirety, you wish the creators had achieved more by settling for slightly less.
But only in that area. In every other, Motown: The Musical would benefit greatly from significantly more attention. That opening montage, which so thrillingly captures the history, the tension, and surprise of this music at its zenith, demonstrates what it’s capable of achieving on a Broadway stage. This final product doesn’t satisfy, but one suspects it easily could were it helmed by a visionary theatre artist capable of (and willing to risk) stripping away the excess in search of the searing, spine-tingling tribute that is likely slumbering beneath the weight of all those hits.