BWW Review: PRIDE & JOY: THE MARVIN GAYE MUSICAL at The National
At a time when Motown Records just marked its 60th anniversary with a lavish TV special, and with "Ain't Too Proud: The Temptations Musicals" getting a raft of Tony Nominations, following the Broadway success of "Motown the Musical" and "Dreamgirls," based on The Supremes, any fan of the sound would certainly anticipate a new creation called "Pride & Joy: The Marvin Gaye Musical."
Especially in the city of his birth. Gaye's artistry may have flourished in Detroit, but he honed his talent in Washington, D.C., where he was born and raised,formed a doo-wop group with friends, recorded with Bo Diddley and joined the Moonglows following their 1958 appearance at the Howard Theatre.
None of that is in "Pride & Joy," though, a Detroit-made musical that begins there, though the mention of D.C. gets cheers at the National Theater where it may be having its world premiere (it was scheduled in other cities but may have been canceled).
Those wishing a Broadway-quality sweep through the dramatic life of the singer, filled with all of its terrific music and triumphant comebacks will have to wait, though. Though the current production has Broadway-sized cast of a dozen or so, a talented and unseen band, a dozen dancers in a dozen costumes and make a lot of use of expensive, huge video screens that assure quick scene changes and motion, "Pride & Joy" seems to come more out of the gospel play circuit, from its clunky melodrama to onstage prayer and big gospel music rave-ups.
Gaye is known for his mastery in several musical fields, though gospel is not necessarily one of them; he never released a gospel album for instance.
But there's more than enough drama in his life to focus on - maybe too much for one show. This one is based on the diaries of his first wife Anna Gordy, so we see his story through her eyes, when Gaye was a young and cocky singer and she was a producer and sister of the label founder.
He's played by Jarran Muse, who previously played Gaye in "Motown the Musical," so has the look if not the exact sound. If he sometimes echoes like the effortless croon of the singer, we still don't hear what might have made the original exceptional. Krystal Drake, as Anna, has the sophistication and bearing required for her role as well as the ability, when needed, to trade strong vocals with the lead.
Hits are carefully chosen to tell their love story, from "Stubborn Kind of Fella" to the title song. And before you know it, they're a couple and he's a hit (though we don't see how; we don't even see Berry Gordy's reaction to his star marrying his sister - he scarcely figures in the show). Before long, he's on stage singing through hits like "Hitchhike" before he's paired with young Tammi Terrell (a terrific Kourtney Lenton), with whom Gaye made a soaring set of romantic duets before she dramatically collapsed on stage in his arms during a Virginia concert in 1967.
That tragedy and all of the wonderful things they recorded could be basis for a more tightly-focused musical in the future. Instead, it's the cause of depression and a shift in tone so severe there's a whole new actor on stage doing Gaye - Chea Stephen, in a beard and stocking cap and better handling the Gaye voice from "What's Going On" forward (Yes, the husband ages while the wife stays exactly the same).
And if the singer's intent was more serious at this point, when he wanted to reflect the turmoil in the late 60s, did he really sing "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Hollar)" surrounded by flashing lights and dancers in tails and canes? Costuming gets mixed up, too, as Stephen dons patent leather "Trouble Man" trench coat to sing "What's Going On."
As fun as it was to hear the hits, the sound was pretty terrible in the National - tinny, with lines obscured whenever the band played in the background (a lot of the dialog sounded like the mumbling voices in the beginning of the "What's Going On" record). It got worse whenever either Gaye actor yelled into his headset microphone - which happened in every dramatic scene. Someone would bring up something and he'd stomp around and yell. And when you could make out what he was saying ("Rules for this world don't apply to me, baby!") you sort of wish you hadn't. This could have been a problem with the writing or the directing, but probably both.
"Let's Get It On" becomes a license for the singer to fool around, according to the play, and soon the couple are at odds. The delicious irony of their pairing was their divorce settlement: that he would have to give up royalties for his next album to his ex. His solution was doing a terrible one and titling it "Here, My Dear." Their better breakup song, though, is "My Mistake (Was to Love You)," plucked from a Gaye-Diana Ross duo album, a highlight of the show.
Things move ahead to his 1984 comeback "Sexual Healing," and his acceptance speech at the Grammys (where his award seems to be a desk lamp). If we are to believe this narrative, they reunite following that big evening and pledge their enduring love.
But there is one more explosive part to Gaye's career that is literally phoned in - when he's shot by his father the day before his 45th birthday. That major part of his life - his fraught relationship with his father - is never touched upon because we had never met or heard anything about his family until then. On the other hand there were all these kind of unnecessary, thrown-in songs to justify the jukebox-musical designation (or kill time during the next costume change), from "The Twist" to the Emotions' "Best of My Love" to Teddy Pendergrass.
How to end things now? In a gospel musical, you better believe it's heaven, where the angel Marvin comes down and reprises the title song.
"Pride & Joy: The Marvin Gaye Musical" does a disservice to its complex and consequential subject, pretending to offer Broadway-quality while failing on many levels. Even if it brings an excuse to hear some terrific songs live once more, that's not quite enough.
Running time: Two and a half hours with one intermission.