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BWW Reviews: MOTOWN THE MUSICAL Makes For Catchy, Frothy Fun But Little Else


"Motown the Musical" plays out like a veritable hit parade. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, this first national touring production showcases Motown Records producer Berry Gordy's greatest songs as performed by some capable onstage talent. The show makes for a lively and fun evening at the theatre but provides little in the way of truly meaningful plot or character development.

While there's not too much to share in the way of plot summary, a brief rundown proves helpful for unfamiliar Chicago audiences. With book written by Gordy himself, "Motown" charts the record producer's career over a span of 25 years - following him from his days as a doe-eyed, wannabe songwriter to the 25th anniversary of his wildly successful Motown Records. Along the way, "Motown" introduces us to the personalities and songs of some of Motown's most prominent artists - think Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Jackson 5 and the like - and offers up a peek into Gordy's personal and professional life. "Motown" also presents the most fleeting of glimpses into the larger issues underlying Gordy's record production, and the major political events that shaped his career. In keeping with the celebratory nature of the show, "Motown" never digs deep on these more serious themes. That said, "Motown" has a few more reflective, effective moments - including one scene where Gordy talks a Caucasian disc jockey into playing what the latter has dubbed "race music."

A word on the set and costumes for this inaugural touring production: David Korins's set strikes me as perhaps a little too artificial, relying heavily on flashy digital projections to mark the passage of time and introduce the stars. Esosa's costume designs work better in terms of adding some tasteful yet spectacular flare to "Motown." With such performing divas as Mary Wells and Diana Ross in the show, "Motown" clearly calls for some elaborate costume pieces. These feel authentic and in keeping with the musical's timeline.

This production of "Motown" is anchored by a capable, though not necessarily outstanding, cast. All members of the ensemble seem to be having a blast onstage, but Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams's choreography feels overly simplistic. The dance moves in "Motown" stick to the basic - think arm movements in time to the music and some occasional hip swaying, with a hand towards the audience during The Supremes' mega-hit "Stop in the Name of Love." For a show as big on spectacle as "Motown" aims to be, I had hoped for the choreography to be more of a showstopper. Instead, the performers engage in plenty of animated toe tapping, and that's about it.

That said, "Motown" is not without some standout performances. As Berry Gordy, Clifton Oliver oozes charm and cleverness and has a nice singing voice to boot. He has a particularly poignant moment at the end of the second act, in which he sings "Can I Close the Door," a touching new ballad written just for the show. As his loyal friend and fellow recording artist Smokey Robinson, Nicholas Christopher comes across as sweet as pie. Christopher makes his character utterly endearing, and audiences will be rooting for this Smokey until the end. As Diana Ross, Allison Semmes makes for one dedicated diva, and she truly has a powerful belting voice. Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye nails such hits as "What's Going On" and especially "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." Muse's acting is less memorable, though this is perhaps because his character is not well developed. And finally, credit must be given to youngest cast member Reed L. Shannon, who particularly shines as the young Michael Jackson. Performing such hits as "ABC" and "I Want You Back" in the second act, Shannon truly steals the show. He's real cute, but he's real talented too.

"Motown" certainly throws it back to an era of classic American music and also gives a glimpse of the story behind it, but the production remains light on storyline and could use a bit more energy. That said, audiences looking for some summer theatre fun and those who dig this music genre would enjoy an evening at "Motown the Musical."

"Motown the Musical" runs through August 9 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. Tickets are $30-$138. 800-775-2000 or

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Margie Korshak, Inc.

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