BWW Review: MOTOWN Slays 'em in Music City

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that on Tuesday night, February 16, Music City officially fell in love with Motown. Berry Gordy's musical is the stuff of legend and, as it takes us from 1983 all the way back to 1938 and back again, you can't help but be impressed by the ambitious young man's rise to preeminence; his story is the American dream come true and Gordy's impact on pop culture and the very fiber of our nation's history cannot be overstated - it's a story that resonates in Nashville to be certain.

You will be transported on Gordy's sentimental journey by almost 70 songs (if you don't find yourself singing along or, at the very least, moving in your seat in time with the music - well, I'm not sure what we can do about that, but it will include a lot of prayer and whiskey) that are interpolated into the show's score to give both perspective and entertainment value to the spirited and energetic show. But it's the leading performances of Chester Gregory and Allison Semmes as Berry Gordy and Diana Ross that will ensure your rapt attention, grabbing hold of your heart to elicit an emotional response that typifies the very best of musical theater.

Gregory and Semmes are enormously engaging, wonderfully appealing and possess so much stage presence between them that they could be singing nursery rhymes and you would still be awestruck by their amazing talents and onstage skills. And in Motown the Musical they are surrounded by a plethora of committed performers who bring the various stories of Gordy and company to life with dynamic force. In fact, there's so much talent to be found in the national touring company of Motown that you may find yourself breathless as the musical cavalcade unfolds before your eyes at near-breakneck speed.

Say what you will about the Motown the Musical's book - it's based on Gordy's autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown - that it glosses over the reality of Gordy's life and the financial and personal struggles therein, but we should all be so lucky to helm our own Broadway musical about our own lives with such grace, vigor and self-realization. A prosaic documentary very rarely possesses the creative punch and imaginative flair found in good musical theater; rather, reality must be heightened, poetic license taken, to produce a theatrical endeavor that is certain to entertain, to sell tickets and to wend its way into the collective heart of the audience.

And from the very first moment - when the orchestra responds to the introduction of their conductor Darryl Archibald - Motown the Musical has its audience on-board, if not on its feet, for the musical thrill-ride of this or any other century. Beginning in 1983 at Pasadena Civic Auditorium where the Motown 25 celebration and television special was in rehearsal, then flashing back to 1938 when Joe Louis' victory over Max Schmeling holds eight-year-old Berry Gordy Jr. and his entire family in its thrall, and then working its way back over a quarter of a century to give us an overview of some of the most turbulent times in American history, Motown is a tuneful consideration of music's impact on the public psyche and its impact on social change.

While the musical numbers are presented as more of a pastiche of concert performances by numerous names you should know, some are shoe-horned into the script as traditional book songs to allow characters to express themselves when mere talking just can't suffice. Only a few of the songs are presented in full-out performances and those provide the highlights of the evening's musical program.

If you are like me - growing up through the 1960s and '70s, during Motown's heyday, you will find yourself caught up in an emotional reverie, remembering the historic events of your life viewed through the prism of pop music. It's a heady experience, proof that multiple generations can chart the course of their lives through the music that has underscored a shared existence. As if by magic, you will be whisked away to the civil rights struggles of the mid-century, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon and the constant upheaval of social change that has brought us to where we are today.

Though perhaps cliché, the more things change the more they stay the same; for example, consider "Dancing in the Streets," the signature song of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, first recorded in 1964 as a summertime tune inspired by Detroit youngsters sloughing off the heat of summer beneath waters spouting from the city's fire hydrants. Not long after the song moved its way up the musical charts of the day, it evolved into an anthem of the civil rights movement: riots in inner-city America inspired demonstrators to use "Dancing in the Streets" as a rallying call to action. Meanwhile, Martha Reeves told reporters "it's a party song."

Compare and contrast that song from 1964 to the current controversy and/or acclaim engendered by Beyonce's "Formation" performance at Super Bowl 50: Rutherford County sheriff Robert Arnold just hours before Motown's opening night at TPAC, suggested that an alleged rise in crime against law enforcement officers could possibly be the result of her halftime performance.

Music has always reflected society's views of life, often serving as a response to the elements of social change, and it continues to do so. Today's music is directly descended from the music of the times that have come before: As American jazz and blues music have led to rock and roll, disco, metal, grunge and so forth...Beyonce's ascendance can be traced directly back to such performers as Martha Reeves, Mary Wells and Diana Ross, all of whom owe much of their artistry and success to the nurturing and direction of Berry Gordy.

With Motown providing the soundtrack to the lives of millions over the past 50 years - music that helped to bridge the gap between white and black society in America, to foment social change - the musical's loftier goals are achieved just as certainly as its ability to entertain and to energize its audience.

Gregory is impressive as Gordy: Self-assured, focused and charming, he takes command of the proceedings from his very first moments onstage to the show's invigorating finale. Clearly, his performance makes Gordy's lifelong adventure more accessible and he somehow manages to create a character who is almost heartbreakingly real. Gregory ensures that Gordy's role in American history, both musical and otherwise, is given its due.

Semmes - who is remembered fondly by Nashville audiences from her tour with The Color Purple a few years back - does so much more than deliver an impersonation of Diana Ross. Rather, she becomes the legendary diva with a combination of talent and skill that allows her to seamlessly and effortlessly evolve from shy and endearing teenager to the ultimate doyenne of music, whatever the genre may be. In Semmes' superb performances there are some moments which are almost transcendent - for me, it would be "I Hear A Symphony," a song I very clearly remember hearing Diana Ross and the Supremes perform on television when I was but a wee tyke in Bethel Springs, Tennessee - and she never fails to surprise and delight, perhaps most notably in a scene that takes place during Ross' Las Vegas debut. Interacting with the audience with charm and elan, Semmes calls upon volunteers from the audience to join her in singing "Reach Out and Touch" to grand effect. That American Idol finalist Clark Beckham was in the audience came as no surprise, it's Music City, after all, and that's how we roll.

With Gregory and Semmes leading the ensemble, it also comes as no surprise that supporting characters are just as superbly portrayed, particularly the roles of Marvin Gaye (portrayed on opening night in Nashville by Rodney Earl Jackson Jr.), Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Ryan) and young Michael Jackson (Leon Outlaw Jr., who also plays the young Berry Gordy and Little Stevie Wonder). In fact, the entire ensemble is so miraculously on-point, creating such a wide range of characterizations over the shows two-plus hours, that you will be simply amazed. Honestly, they are magnificient.

Charles Randolph-Wright's direction moves the musical's action along at a good pace: scene transitions are effortlessly achieved and he creates some gorgeous tableaux onstage to ensure the audience is stimulated as much by the show's visuals as they are by its music. He's given strong support in his vision by the show's creative team whose shared creativity make Motown the Musical one of the most appealingly designed shows you're likely to encounter. David Korins' scenic design provides the perfect setting, highlighted in style by Natasha Katz's lighting design and Daniel Brodie's projection design. Peter Hylenski's sound design is among the best we've experienced in a Nashville setting, and Esosa's costume design will literally leave you breathless, perfectly capturing the time period - every time period covered in the play's telling - enrobing each character beautifully in one costume after another.

Archibald conducts the show's orchestra (a mix of touring musicians and players from among the very best to be found in Nashville) with confidence and they rise to the occasion to perform the show's score with impeccable skill.

Finally, what can be said about the show's choreography? Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams using every choreographic trick to be found in their repertoire to add movement and dynamism to the performances of some of the best-loved songs to be found in the canon of American music. They not only provide eye-popping dances, but they help to convey a very specific style of time and place that ultimately transports the audience to another world. Wow!

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis