BWW Review: MOTOWN THE MUSICAL at Starlight Theatre
2013's "Motown, The Musical" opened Tuesday night for a week's run through August 27 at Starlight Theatre inside Swope Park to a responsive, handclapping, music-swaying, delighted audience. "Motown" is what old films might call a biopic with music. It tells the story of "Motown" founder and owner Berry Gordy Junior and his business and personal journey through popular music based in the black experience of mid-20th Century Detroit Michigan.
If you love the music of Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Martha and the Vandellas, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and their ilk, "Motown the Musical" is for you. The show is well performed, slickly produced, choreographed to a hair's breath, and full of pieces of more than 60 hits that emanated from the tiny "Hitsville, USA" studio in 1950s Detroit.
"Motown" is long on music and technical expertise, but a little short on character development and depth. It plows through so much music, so many R&B stars, and mid-century history, a decision has been made to gloss over valuable insights in a successful effort to entertain.
The premise finds Berry Gordy (Chester Gregory) refusing to attend a 1983 Pasadena benefit performance in his honor. Many of the performers who Gordy made famous have gathered to say Thank You to the man who mentored their careers. Gordy is bitter that these folks have gone on to other things. His business is struggling. The story emerges mainly in flashback.
In addition to the music, there are glimpses of important moments in African -American and mid 20th century history including Joe Louis's 1938 championship victory over Max Schmeling, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Viet Nam War, racial unrest, and the Jim Crowe laws. The audience is made aware of conflicts inside the Motown business model and how companies with more financial heft eventually hired away the label's biggest stars. Personally, Gordy is seen as a controlling, parental figure who wanted to exercise near total control over his stable of stars, especially his long time lover, pop diva Diana Ross.
Of course, Gordy eventually relents and shows up on stage with all his stars for the grand finale.
As Diana Ross, Allison Semmes is an excellent performer who stands in for the original Diana just fine. David Kaverman (Smokey Robinson) and Jaran Muse (Marvin Gaye) are both very good and deserve to be recognized. The remaining cast of twenty-nine actors and five musicians in the pit do so many things and play so many parts, they are difficult to single out, but all are worth seeing and hearing.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright, Choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, and scenic director David Korns have done a fine job of creating something that shares interesting stage pictures, keeps the action moving, and kaleidoscopes through a century of time in about 265 minutes.
"Motown, the Musical" continues at Starlight Theatre through Sunday August 27. Tickets are available at the Starlight website, at the box office or by telephone at (816)363-7827.