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Motown the Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 22, 2016

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. Motown is used under license from UMG Recordings, Inc.. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Choreographed by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams. Music supervision and 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 and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Orchestrations by Ethan Popp & Bryan Crook. Cast: Chester Gregory, Allison Semmes, Jesse Nager, Jarran Muse, Nik Alexander, J.J. Batteast, Erick Buckley, Chante Carmel, Chadaé, Lynorris Evans, Anissa Felix, Talya Groves, Rod Harrelson, Robert Hartwell, Trisha Jeffrey, Jamie LaVerdiere, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Loren Lott, Jarvis B. Manning, Jr., Krisha Marcano, Marq Moss, Rashad Naylor, Leon Outlaw, Jr., Ramone Owens, Olivia Puckett, Nicholas Ryan, Jamison Scott, Joey Stone, Doug Storm, Martina Sykes, Julius Thomas III, Nik Walker, Galen J. Williams
Theatre: Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Allison Semmes and Chester Gregory
Photo by Joan Marcus

The old magic, once gone, is difficult to get back. This is the message, more or less at the heart of Motown, the jukebox-musical celebration of the famed record company. Its story is about its founder, Berry Gordy, following his dreams and instincts to get his and his friends' music done their way, in a triumph of African-American gumption and resilience in the face of the latent white prejudice of the pre–Civil Rights years. Its framing device finds Berry at Motown's 25th anniversary celebration in 1983, when it had become a shadow of its former self after the loss of its biggest artists (including, among others, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross), wondering where it all went wrong and trying to set things right again.

Many of the same thoughts were swirling around inside my head while watching the production that just opened at the Nederlander, albeit from a different vantage point. This mounting, you see, is really no more than a stop of the national tour, and, to be frank, looks and feels like it. Though Gordy is still credited with the book (written after his own To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, The Memories of Motown), Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams the choreography, and Charles Randolph-Wright the direction, it plays as an entirely different, and noticeably less compelling, show than the original version that ran on Broadway from April 2013 to January 2015.

This is not to say I was an enormous fan of that incarnation—I wasn't—but it had a size, energy, and (relative) intensity that this one lacks. Part of that is due to targeted book rewrites and gentle changes to the song stack that have stripped out some of the darker adventurousness, in favor of a greater focus on cramming in more and better-known songs. Perhaps this did have the effect of giving audiences more of what they knew they wanted going in, but it's also imparted a jagged choppiness that keeps the evening from cohering theatrically. There's a conventional scene-applause-scene-applause pacing that's off for this free-flowing trip into Berry's memory, and reduces the song and people to set-piece status they didn't hold in quite the same way before.

Everything of import is covered, from the formation of the company to the assembly of its glimmering stable of artists to its eventual decline, with expected stops at key waypoints on the journey. (How The Supremes became The Supremes is a vital area of study, as is how Michael Jackson became Michael Jackson.) The most central of the many diffuse plot elements, Berry's romance with Diana, plays more obligatorily and less emphatically, as though it, like the record meeting scenes and Marvin's descent into activism, are but temporary obstacles that must be endured to get to the good stuff (the songs). But without that heart, the songs can't acquire the dramatic weight necessary to ascend above mere Top 40 status, even momentarily. And absent that anchor, it's tough to get the impression you're watching a glorified review rather than a genuine attempt, however hagio-autobiographical, at relating a history that's immeasurable affected our popular culture.

True, Berry and Diana are played much more lightly: Chester Gregory's energetic good-guy spin on the former wants for some corroborating heaviness (raw ambition?) to better explain and demonstrate Gordy's mythic status; and though Allison Semmes, as Diana, is at her most charming in a Las Vegas bit (complete with sing-along and audience interaction) she struggles to summon the sexiness and star quality of the real icon she's playing.

Semmes stops just short of full-on parody with her portrayal, but others go all the way. Jesse Nager is highly likable as Smokey Robinson, but unconvincingly happy-go-lucky in every scene; Jarran Muse is all over the map as Marvin, and obscures too much of his anguished transformation; and Leon Outlaw, Jr., who alternates with J.J. Batteast as adolescent versions of Berry, Jackson, and Stevie Wonder, though obviously talented, is doing a series of broad impressions more than he is singing and dancing his heart out.

Motown the Musical cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Pale imitation, though, is the order of the night, even extending to the sets (David Korins), costumes (Esosa), lights (Natasha Katz), and projections (Daniel Brodie) that don't pop with the enthusiasm they did the first time around, even though they're all based on the same designs (or maybe exactly the same designs). Randolph-Wright's less urgent, more stop-and-start direction probably encourages the slump; some moments that used to electrify, most notably the high-pitched curtain-raiser in which the Four Tops and the Temptations stage a thrilling game of musical one-upmanship with their chart-toppers as their weapons of choice, now barely register. Only the choreography, simple but spirited recreations of the 1960s-1970s sexual, angular dances, lives up to expectations.

Well, that and the music—it's pointless to argue with a song catalog that includes "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," "My Girl," "Stop in the Name of Love," "Dancing in the Streets," and other hits far too numerous to list, even if many of them appear as only fragments. (Gordy has written a small handful of new songs to augment the classics, to uneven effect.) As orchestrated (by Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook) and conducted (by Daniel Archibald), they all inhabit the same lyrical universe, which is its own minor miracle. (Zane Mark helped further with the fine dance arrangements.) And wish though you may that a more serious attempt had been made to integrate these into the story (the eternal jukebox musical dilemma) or such impulses had been altogether avoided (something that has worked fiendishly well for the closest thing to a gold standard of the genre, Jersey Boys), you can't avoid falling under their spell when they're fully unleashed.

If that's the good-ish news, the bad news is that the magic ain't lasting long: The producers just announced that this revival's planned four-month run is being cut short, and it's closing instead next Sunday. It's certainly not the fate anyone involved hoped for, to be sure, just as Motown's becoming a low-impact label (its parent-parent company is today Universal Music Group) can't be what Gordy envisioned once upon a time. Motown may close soon, but Motown itself will live on in history as long as there are people to listen to and hear the songs it popularized, which, under the circumstances, is a better outcome than anyone could hope for.

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