Review - Motown, the Musical: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of musicals, it was the worst of musicals. It was a score of wisdom, it was a book of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief in the entertainment value of songs like "Dancing In The Streets" and "My Girl," it was the epoch of incredulity in hearing lines like "Your little Stevie is a wonder" and "You built a legacy of love." We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

Motown is at the same time a wonderful idea and a horrible idea for a musical. Wonderful in that the story of how Berry Gordy, 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, created 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, is a highly dramatic story that not only sings, but comes with its own collection of sensational songs.

It's a horrible idea because there's too much to it to fit into two and a half hours of Broadway entertainment. Satisfactorily representing the contributions of all the major artists Gordy discovered and developed (The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, etcetera, etcetera and so forth.) would require a cycle of musicals of Wagnerian length. (Which, for the record, I wouldn't mind sitting through at all.)

But without the benefit of any nationally known performers in the cast, the name Motown, the musical was enough to generate a reported 10 million dollars in advance ticket sales, making it, to the people who earn their livings from theatre, a brilliant idea.

Of course, it could have been artistically brilliant as well in the hands of a skilled bookwriter who could devise a method for including all the hit songs the public wants to hear in a way that enhances the story (as in Jersey Boys), rather that gumming up the works every time the music starts (Good Vibrations). But, with the assistance of David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan, whose billing as "script consultants" can be found somewhere near the bottom of the credits (Was Thomas Meehan screening his calls?), Gordy took on the task himself. The end result not only speaks for the fact that he has never written a musical before, it makes me 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 54 classic tunes and 3 plot/character songs written for the show with lyrics by Berry Gordy and music by Michael Lovesmith, whose contribution doesn't seem to merit billing nor a Playbill bio.

The central character is essayed by Brandon Victor Dixon, a very strong actor-singer who works admirably hard in a large but thankless role lacking in humor and empathy and continually upstaged by an excellent supporting ensemble that gets to sing the songs the audience came to hear. When the plot does come up for air, it mainly concerns the relationship between Gordy and Diana Ross; a captivating portrayal by Valisia LeKae, who convincing takes the character from spunky high school kid to luminous icon, highlighting the growth in her poise and artistry as she progresses from "Where Did Our Love Go?" to "Stop! In The Name Of Love," "I Hear A Symphony," "Reach Out and Touch" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough".

Also prominently featured are Charl Brown as a loyal Smokey Robinson ("What kind of a name is Smokey, anyway?" says one of the many clueless white characters.) and Bryan Terrell Clark as Marvin Gaye, who goes from a young man who wants to be the next Frank Sinatra to an observant artist who wants to reflect his times with controversial protest music. Young Raymond Luke, Jr. (who alternates with Jibreel Mawry) makes enjoyable appearances in act one as young Berry Gordy and Little Stevie Wonder, but stops the show in act two as Michael Jackson, singing and dancing hits like "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There" with infectious joy and exuberance.

And if you resolve to just ignore the clunky clichés of the dramatically thin book, you can pretty much be infected by joy and exuberance all night. Director Charles Randolph-Wright, who can't be expected to work miracles with the script, teams with choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams to get his dazzling company to perform classics like "Do You Love Me," "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Please, Mr. Postman," "Shop Around" and "What's Going On?" in the styles of their famous predecessors without locking them into strict impersonations. Most of the selections, out of necessity, are truncated and flow smoothly into each other without applause breaks, keeping the proceedings swift. Peter Hylenski's sound design is just perfect.

Best of all, Motown is the first of Broadway's jukebox musicals to offer songs from a wide assortment of artists in chronological order, letting listeners feel the collective growth of the label's product from innocuous love songs like "My Guy" and "I Can't Help Myself" to edgier fare such as "Brick House," "Super Freak" and "War".

Just shut up and sing.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Brandon Victor Dixon and Valisia LeKae; Bottom: Raymond Luke, Jr. and Cast.

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"Age is not important unless you're a cheese."

-- Helen Hayes

The grosses are out for the week ending 4/21/2013 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (16.2%), PIPPIN (8.6%), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (7.8%), ONCE (7.1%), MAMMA MIA! (7.1%), MACBETH (5.7%), NEWSIES (5.5%), VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (5.3%), THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (4.9%), ROCK OF AGES (4.3%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (3.6%), ANNIE (3.1%), CHICAGO (2.7%), I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS (2.3%), KINKY BOOTS (2.0%), WICKED (1.9%), JERSEY BOYS (1.4%), LUCKY GUY (1.3%), THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES (1.2%), MATILDA (1.1%), ORPHANS (0.9%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT(0.8%),

Down for the week was: ANN (-8.8%), THE NANCE (-7.6%), JEKYLL & HYDE (-5.0%), THE BIG KNIFE (-4.6%), MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL (-3.0%), CINDERELLA (-2.3%), THE LION KING (-1.4%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-1.2%),

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