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Review: The Music of MOTOWN Returns; Unfortunately, So Does The Book

Without the benefit of any nationally known performers in the cast, MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL generated a reported 10 million dollars in advance ticket sales when it first arrived on Broadway in April of 2013.

Allison Semmes and Chester Gregory
?(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Its irresistible title was the star, as well as the promise it brought of an evening packed with the greatest hits by artists such as The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and many more.

Berry Gordy, the trailblazing genius who broke through the music industry's racial barriers, wrote the musical's autobiographical book about how he was inspired at a young age by seeing how Joe Louis' victory over Max Schmeling had united Americans of all races in support of a black man defeating a white man, and went on to create an independent record label that tremendously affected American culture during the height of the civil rights movement, allowing the music of black artists to be heard and loved throughout the country. It's a highly dramatic story that not only sings, but comes with its own collection of sensational songs: "Dancing in the Street," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Shop Around," "Stop in the Name of Love," "ABC," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "My Girl," "My Guy" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," just to get things started.

But the end result not only speaks for the fact that Gordy has never written a musical before, the clunky dialogue ("That little Stevie is a wonder.") and the static storytelling makes one seriously wonder if he's ever seen one.

Scenes where Gordy refuses to attend a televised 25th Anniversary of Motown celebration because he still holds grudges for the acts that left the label for lucrative offers he couldn't match bookend performances of over fifty classic tunes, mostly in brief snippets, and three plot/character songs written for the show with lyrics by Berry Gordy and music by Michael Lovesmith.

But on the strength of the slick and polished work by director Charles Randolph-Wright and choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, who allowed a top notch cast to perform in the styles of their famous predecessors without locking them into strict impersonations, MOTOWN ran for over 700 performances in its initial Broadway run before taking to the road with the promise to eventually return to Broadway.

That return, which commenced July 12th, was announced for an 18-week engagement, but even before the reviews could come out, the news arrived that MOTOWN's stay at the Nederlander will end on July 31st.

So what happened? The touring version of the show that came into town is essentially the same production with new actors giving some terrific star turns, but something interesting happened to Broadway musicals since the time MOTOWN started racking up that huge advance. They got better. A lot better.

Not just the Tony-winners, KINKY BOOTS, FUN HOME and HAMILTON, but a variety of solidly written entries like SOMETHING ROTTEN!, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, WAITRESS, ALADDIN, SCHOOL OF ROCK and even the soon-to-close and seriously underappreciated SHUFFLE ALONG. Bio-musicals BEAUTIFUL and ON YOUR FEET! display far more literary sophistication than what MOTOWN has to offer.

Robert Hartwell, Rashad Naylor, Leon Outlaw, Jr.,
Lynorris Evans and Julius Thomas III
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

But if the book disappoints, the dynamic company is well worth catching. Chester Gregory is a powerful presence as Gordy and belts out emotional numbers as well as any of the acts his character discovers.

Allison Semmes portrays his love interest, Diana Ross as a confident and ambitious teenager who grows into a pop goddess who draws in audiences with open-hearted sincerity and draws in men with kittenish flirtations.

Jesse Nager displays a sweet tenor and likable charm as Gordy's right hand man, Smokey Robinson, and J. J. Batteast, who alternates with Leon Outlaw Jr., makes brief appearances as young versions of Gordy and Stevie Wonder, but really tears up the joint singing and dancing a medley as Michael Jackson, backed by his brothers.

Jarran Muse makes a striking transformation as Marvin Gaye, going from a star with ambitions to be the next Frank Sinatra to an artist looking to help change the world through musical activism.

The first act closes with Gaye's "What's Going On?" presented as a reaction to confrontations between black civil rights protesters and white police officers. If the book of MOTOWN hasn't gotten better since its previous Broadway run, that one moment has sadly become more relevant.

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From This Author - Michael Dale