MOTOWN the MUSICAL is a Huge Hit: Now thru Sep 28!
Hodges & Hodges grooved their way down to the Orpheum Theatre to dance the night away at MOTOWN the Musical! The hit record company defined the sound of the sixties and seventies, breaking down racial barriers with a signature soul/pop sound that cut across the black/white divide at a time when segregation was still the law of the land. Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations were just a few of the artists that made up the hit parade at Motown.
The staggering amount of talent, creativity and love that was the Motown Sound and the story behind its founder Berry Gordy -- all brought to the Broadway stage in MOTOWN -- will touch your heart and put the beat back in your feet. Playing now through September 28 at San Francisco's landmark Orpheum Theatre, MOTOWN the Musical is a must see and surely a show for your theatre bucket list.
The story begins right before the 25th Anniversary celebration of Motown Records. It's an event that may conspicuously have to announce Berry Gordy (a glorious Clifton Oliver) as a no-show to his own tribute. He's still hurting over the stars that left Motown to go their own way and wonders if there's really anything to celebrate. As Gordy ponders whether or not he'll attend he reminisces on how it all began. The story is then told in flashback beginning with his childhood when African American boxer Joe Louis broke down one of the first racial divides to become the heavyweight champion of the world several times over. The show continues as Gordy strives to realize his dream of owning a record company that will bring black artists into the mainstream following the path of the great Joe Louis. It proceeds through the lives of the stars he's created, and the love affair he had with Diana Ross. Written by the legendary Gordy himself and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright the show features over 40 Motown hits and the artists who sang them.
Linda: Nick, what were your first impressions?
Nick: This is one of the best shows that I have ever seen! I have never before wanted to get up to sing and dance more than during Motown!
Linda: I felt the same way, but it was also bitter-sweet in light of what's happening in #Ferguson. I'm so glad that the real Berry Gordy, who came up on stage at the end of the show, mentioned how important it was to keep working on breaking down barriers. To see him up there dancing with Diana Ross (the astounding Allison Semmes) Smokey Robinson (a wonderful Nicholas Christopher), Marvin Gaye (the soulful Jarran Muse) and of course Stevie Wonder (the spot-on Elijah Ahmad Lewis) and little Michael Jackson, played by the pitch-perfect Reed L. Shannon, was something I'll never forget.
Nick: Reed L. Shannon as a young Michael Jackson was worth the price of admission all on his own. I always have a worry about actors sounding (or not sounding) like their famous counterparts but Shannon hit it out of the park! It was like watching Michael perform onstage in real life. It was just a treat!
Nick: I thoroughly enjoyed the set. I thought the effect of the crisscrossing luminous light pillars moving up and down and side to side was ingenious.
Linda: Yes, they were actually quite minimalist yet, they made a huge impact. Brodie's projections of everything from West Grand Blvd. in Detroit (Motown headquarters) to clubs and venues around the world, not to mention projections of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam war, truly added depth, as well as energy to the show.
Nick: I enjoyed the way lighting designer Natasha Katz created moods with the luminous light pillars and color shades that helped define the separate decades. She really drew your eye to specific parts of the stage, allowing the audience to focus on what director Randolph Wright wanted highlighted.
Nick: Ethan Popp's music arrangements did the same thing. There was the signature Motown Sound -- tambourines on the back beat, amazing double drum set sound, prominent bass guitar. But there was a definite Broadway tempo that kept the show moving. Popp's made the truncated versions of the Motown hits sound like little vignettes instead of mere teasers.
Linda: Having the through line of racism and Motown's role in affecting change through music was really sobering, yet it didn't overwhelm the show. It really grounded the show and made it more than just a story. Jarran Muse's Marvin Gaye singing "What's Going On" right after the news that Dr. King was shot was powerful. I saw a lot of people tear up as he sang, "Mother, mother/There's too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There's far too many of you dying..." We need to heed those words today.
Nick: That scene mirrors the one in which Motown performers begin touring the world, finding acceptance in places like France, yet they encounter the worst problems back home in the American South. When Smokey (Nicholas Christopher) goes on stage to a potentially dangerous crowd and starts to sing, "I don't like you, but I love you" you could see the fear in his eyes. To see the police on stage trying to quiet the crowds made my stomach turn.
Linda: But then the music starts and as each Motown performer finds their courage and begins to sing out, the change in the stage audience is palpable. And the shift in mood, with whites and blacks singing and dancing together was heartwarming...and hopeful.
Nick: Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy was outstanding. Watching his character arc (along with subtle changes in his voice and body) was like watching someone age truthfully onstage in front of you; a really great job and an outstanding voice to back it up.
Linda: Allison Semmes as Diana Ross was genius casting. Her body language was pure Diana and her voice matched the soft soulfulness of the diva's pop sound to perfection. The Ross mini-concert within the show had amazing energy and feel. Semmes had the whole audience, including SPOILER - two lucky audience members singing, "Reach out and touch/Somebody's hand/ Make this world a better place/ if you can." That could have been the anthem of the whole show!
Nick: The audience participants were spectacular! They were both tentative at first (who wouldn't be) and then they really got in the groove and sang it out. After the show we met Kim Warren, the woman who was pulled up on stage to sing. It was fun to meet her and her mom. Warren's voice was so sublime that I thought she had to be a plant!
Linda: But when we talked to her we found that she wasn't a plant, just someone who loves to sing. Kim hails from Maryland where she sings at Baltimore Outreach Church. I can only say that that church is very lucky to have her. By the way, she was dressed to the nines and looked fabulous! Kim - here's to hearing more from you! And Nick, wouldn't you agree that "Reach Out and Touch" was a highlight of the show?
Linda: Let's talk about the relationship between Diana Ross and Gordy (who fondly refer to each other as Black).
Nick: Was it me or did their relationship seem more driven by the passion to become famous than the passion to be each other's loves? Almost every time they were together Gordy talks and talks about how he wants to make her famous. Then they fall in love and he's still more intent on giving her notes on her performance than giving her kisses! I could sense that she wanted more out of the relationship than he was able to give.
Linda: Well, it was nice of her not to give him notes on his performance! LOL. Still, there's no denying Diana Ross's well-known drive for stardom. Yet, in this portrayal, it was clear that she wanted more from him on the personal side.
Nick: Toward the end of the show, as Gordy's Motown legends each start to leave the company for better deals elsewhere, all I could think was, "Why isn't he paying them more?" It seems like he could have kept them if he just paid what was due, but then I don't really know how it all went down.
Linda: The best highlight (in a night of highlights) had to be at the very end. When Berry Gordy finally decides to attend the 25th anniversary of Motown and the real Berry Gordy comes up on stage! That was just spectacular!
Nick and Linda: All we can say is that you should go see Motown the Musical. We know that the real Berry Gordy won't be there for every performance, but you will still love the show. And not only for the great story and great, GREAT music. With racial tension still great in this country and systemic racism still prevalent today. MOTOWN will renew your hope in the dream of equality in diversity. So, whether or not you grew up with Motown, listened to cassettes in your parent's car, or have come by them in mp3 format, you HAVE to come and see this show. It will move your spirt, lift your heart, and re-invigorate your passion for music and for life.