BWW Review: 'Dancing in the Street' with MOTOWN THE MUSICAL at Old National Centre
Imagine an era full of raw energy, vivid passion, and a thirst, drive, and talent that is unparalleled in American musical history. This vibrant scene is revived in Motown the Musical, an embodiment of a people's voice that speaks to the soul of America. It evokes its dreams and its drive, and the audience is not only a witness but a participant in this remembrance of a time when the sounds of pure talent were teeming from every radio.
When I sat down to watch Motown the Musical at the Old National Centre, I was prepared to enjoy myself, to feel my feet tapping, and perhaps to feel the temptation to sing along once in a while. I was entirely unprepared for the impact which this musical had on me as I sat in rapt attention.
What first drew me in was the setting itself. The entire stage is framed out like a TV set. This draws the eye in and centers your focus on the story. The settings seamlessly change by using a few screens that float in, which are used to great effect as vibrant colors, graphics, and even historic video is displayed throughout the story. This sets the characters firmly in a time of turbulence and confusion but also of opportunity and a fight for a new kind of freedom. The lighting design adds to this colorful display and leaves no doubt as to the mood of all involved: it is time to wake up the soul with music.
And that is what touched me through and through, the music. The raw power of the vocals in the show was astounding. The plethora of popular personalities were brought to life by an endlessly talented cast. There were no "leads" but rather those who sang more versus those who maybe sang less. All were talented, powerful vocalists who moved the audience number after number.
The show was also a great opportunity for Indiana to welcome home some of its own. The lead role of Berry Gordy was portrayed by Chester Gregory, whose hometown is Gary, IN. He gave a performance which awoke the soul of many an audience member as he shared his story of fighting for the dream he built and the people he loved along the way. Another standout was the young Raymond Davis Jr., a native of Indianapolis. His portrayal of the young Michael Jackson was so spirited and confident that I tapped my toes, sang, along, and even found myself clapping before each song was over.
At the end of the evening, what resonated with me about this musical was captured so well in a quote used during the performance by the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "...every man from a bass-black to a treble-white is significant on God's keyboard." That is the story of Berry Gordy, father of Motown, and his message resonates with audiences because it is a message to which everyone can respond. Especially when it comes in the form of music.
Like many kids, your parents wish to instill in you a great love of all things musical from their glory days. From the Beatles to The Supremes to Led Zeppelin, I've certainly had a great musical education. Before seeing Motown the Musical, some of the names that I read popped from the playbill as names that I had heard before. Knowing that I would see characters like the silky Smokey Robinson, the beautiful Diana Ross, and smooth-talking Marvin Gaye definitely got me pumped to see what would come.
The next page of the playbill contained the full list of all 66 songs that would be sung. Not knowing anything about the show that I was about to see, I truly thought the show would be a large montage of Motown hits. I was pleasantly surprised to know that the musical was actually about the roots and story of Motown and how Berry Gordy, brilliantly portrayed by Chester Gregory, took a no-name record company and turned it into one of the truly greatest musical powerhouses of all time. From a story standpoint, Motown the Musical is not shy about the political nature of the time, which gave the storyline even more power.
As a previous techie, I also have to throw a quick shout out to the set design because I've never seen this done in any show. Picture three tall and wide panels that span the stage and, through the magic of computer technology, can screen any image you like, such as the Paris skyline to the Ed Sullivan show. The set design helped not only to sell the setting but also the historical nature of the show. By screening videos of Vietnam footage and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speeches, the panels lent themselves to the storytelling.
When it comes to the portrayal of the actual historical characters, I can't think of a show has done a better job. The sheer amount of research that has been done to complete characters like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder had to be tremendous, and it's wonderful to see a show that is completely invested in being historically accurate. From the horrendous leisure suits, down to the incredible costuming of Diana Ross, everything was spot on. The actors were perfect, and I couldn't ask for better from a show. Also, I absolutely can't rave enough about the vocals, and I swear that the real Michael Jackson (Indianapolis local Raymond Davis Jr.), was actually reincarnated on the stage.
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL is an amazing show and one of the best I've seen in a long time. It will be showing at the Old National Centre in Indianapolis through April 2nd.