Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Motown the Musical
Based on Gordy's 1994 autobiography "To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown," the show is a fairly by the book re-telling of the founding of the label and the way Berry molded talent and ran the company like a family. The show covers his close relationships with Motown artists such as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye and how the civil rights struggle in the US and the changes in the music industry forced Gordy to make some changes of his own. Gordy wrote the musical's book and is also a producer of the show, so the story could be perceived as being a bit one-sided as it mostly paints him in a positive light. However, we still see how his workaholic nature was the cause of the downfall in his personal relationship with Ross as well as how he fought with some of his artists for control.
Unfortunately, there is very little drama or tension in the piece beyond those related to the struggle to make hit records, the financial issues Gordy encountered as a result of changes in the music industry, and whether or not Gordy will appear at the 25th anniversary concert of the label that frames the show. Also, with the inclusion of so many songs, it forces many to be sung in truncated versions or as part of a medley. While Ross, Robinson, and Gaye do get special attention, the abundant other performers in the show, from The Four Tops to the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson Five, just to name a few, don't get much stage time, with many of them reduced to short cameo appearances. But those quibbles aside, you can't question the influence that Gordy had in the music industry, so the end result is of one man's story for success and the never-ending stream of songs that most likely would never have become the hits they did without him.
Julius Thomas III brings a clear drive for success to the part of Gordy. He also has a beautiful voice that he shows off to great effect on the numerous songs he is given to sing. Allison Semmes has Diana Ross' well-known, soft, seductive voice down perfectly and her soaring vocals elevate the numerous Supremes hits as well as a couple of Ross' solo songs. While Jesse Nager is used mostly for comic effect as the high pitched voiced and always late Smokey Robinson, he manages a sweet nature for the part that shows his never-ending devotion to Gordy. Jarran Muse brings the right serious tone to Marvin Gaye with his questioning nature and desire to push the limits. Muse also sings stellar versions of "What's Going On" and "Mercy, Mercy Me," the latter having a brilliant a capella start. Reed L. Shannon plays a few parts, including the young Michael Jackson, and his winning performance is a show-stopper. The rest of the ensemble cast play an assortment of roles, including the vast number of performers in the Motown family, and every single cast member has exceptional vocals.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps the show constantly moving, with only a few brief book scenes stopping the momentum. Choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams duplicate the signature moves of the Motown performers, bringing a clear sense of nostalgia to the many performance numbers. Scenic designer David Korins and Daniel Brodie's projections swiftly move us along the 25 years the show covers, with plenty of effective moving set pieces and colorful and period specific projections. The abundant costumes by ESosa are breathtaking and as realistic and period specific as the rest of the design elements.
While Motown the Musical may struggle a bit in the book scenes, they fortunately are never too long and, even though Gordy is mainly represented in a positive way, we do still witness some of his shortcomings. So even with those few negative aspects, the joy of hearing the catalog of Motown hits performed by a stellar cast proves that while Motown may not be a spectacular musical it still results in a spectacular live event.
Motown the Musical runs through April 26th, 2015, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.motownthemusical.com.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright