Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Motown The Musical
National Tour

Also see Nancy's review of Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)


Patrice Covington and Cast
Motown founder Berry Gordy changed the landscape of the music business and launched the careers of such luminaries as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson, earning him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and countless awards for his lifetime achievements. From modest origins in Detroit and a desire to emulate the great boxer Joe Louis, Gordy pursued his passions to bring people happiness and make a difference in the recording studio, finding himself while helping others to achieve their dreams. In 1959, with an $800 loan from his family, he established Hitsville U.S.A., the birthplace of the Motown label, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Motown The Musical is a whirlwind representation of that history, relying heavily on an extensive playlist of some of the most iconic pop songs produced by the Detroit hit-making factory in a span of twenty-five years. With book by Gordy, based on his autobiography "To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown," and approximately five dozen selections from the Motown catalog, the jukebox musical is an evocative stroll, twist, and boogie down memory lane for folks of a certain age. It may not be original to say, but Motown music was the soundtrack of my life and, judging by audience response at the Boston Opera House, the lives of lots of other people, too. They don't write 'em like that anymore.

Under the direction of Charles Randolph-Wright, and with music direction by conductor Darryl Archibald, the talented touring company performs with brio and exuberance, making it a challenge for the rest of us to stay in our seats as they showcase the choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. Some dance steps mimic the routines of the Four Tops and the Temptations, but spiced with a dash of 21st century flair, and their apparent simplicity belies the rigor required to achieve the resulting synergy. Large production numbers involving the ensemble range from the free-wheeling "Dancing in the Street" to the ominous "War" and frenzied "Ball of Confusion."

With the exception of the four principals, everyone in the cast plays multiple roles and they are all outstanding triple threats. Having said that, there are a few characterizations worthy of separate mention. Patrice Covington (Martha Reeves) and Martina Sykes (Mary Wells) belt their songs into the stratosphere, Elijah Ahmad Lewis channels Stevie Wonder, and Doug Storm is a hoot as Ed Sullivan. Top supporting honors go to Leon Outlaw, Jr. for bringing young Michael Jackson vividly back to life from the early days of the Jackson Five. He has all the right moves and sounds eerily like the King of Pop on a medley of "I Want You Back," "ABC," and "The Love You Save." (Outlaw alternates in the role with Nathaniel Cullers and Reed L. Shannon as young Berry/Stevie Wonder/Michael Jackson.)

The stars of the story are Gordy (Julius Thomas III), Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager), and Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse). Thomas is charismatic and his singing voice rich and mellow. He blends beautifully with Semmes when Gordy and Ross romantically croon "You're All I Need to Get By," and packs his eleven o'clock number "Can I Close the Door" (one of two songs written for this production by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith) with powerful emotions. He captures many sides of the man throughout his journey, showing his positivity, persistence, and generosity while establishing his business model, his savvy in pushing his product into the mainstream, and his frustrations and disappointments when adversity strikes.

There seems to have been some effort made for the actors to sound enough like their characters to capture their essence, while steering clear of strict imitation. I applaud that choice given the talents that Semmes, Nager, and Muse bring to their roles. Robinson was there at the start with Gordy and, in addition to writing and recording many of the hits, could speak truth to power. Nager nicely balances the necessary gravitas with the sunny side of Smokey and brings a lot of light to the stage. Muse capably morphs from Gaye's sexy persona in his early career into the smart, soulful singer of protest songs. Semmes is sassy as the high school girl looking to break into the business with her two friends before blossoming into the big star with the big smile and big hair. Simply put, she is terrific.

The design and technical aspects of Motown are also terrific and it is one big entertaining package. However, it falls short in the book where Gordy's ambitions to cover twenty-five years overreach, glossing over some important events and acknowledging smaller ones that needn't be. Similarly, many musical numbers are cut short in an effort to include as many of the great songs and artists as possible, but it can be frustrating if you're grooving on your favorite tune and they stop singing it after only a verse and a chorus. Perhaps they subscribe to the philosophy of "always leave them wanting more," but a little less would be a lot more. In any case, I had a blast and give Motown The Musical two thumbs up.

Motown The Musical, performances through February 15, 2015, at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Ticketmaster 800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayInBoston.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.motownthemusical.com.

Book by Berry Gordy, Music and Lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalog, Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, Choreographed by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams, Music Director/Conductor Darryl Archibald; Music Supervision & Arrangements by Ethan Popp; Scenic Design, David Korins; Costume Design, Esosa; Lighting Design, Natasha Katz; Sound Design, Peter Hylenski; Projection Design, Daniel Brodie; Production Stage Manager, Anna R. Kaltenbach

Cast: Julius Thomas III (Berry Gordy), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross), Jesse Nager (Smokey Robinson), Jarran Muse (Marvin Gaye), Leon Outlaw Jr. (Young Berry Gordy/Stevie Wonder/Michael Jackson - at this performance); Ensemble: Erick Buckley, Patrice Covington, Ashley Tamar Davis, Lynorris Evans, Melanie Evans, Robert Hartwell, Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Jarvis B. Manning Jr., Krisha Marcano, Moeisha McGill, Marq Moss, Rashad Naylor, ChadaƩ Nichol, Ramone Owens, Nic Rowe, Jamison Scott, Joey Stone, Doug Storm, Martina Sykes, Christian Dante White


Photo: Joan Marcus

- Nancy Grossman




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