It is easy to see “Motown: The Musical” as Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s affectionate tribute to himself: He co-wrote the book (based on his memoir) and produced the show, which features songs (some of which he wrote) by more than a dozen of the many acts he discovered and nurtured, including the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, with whom he fathered a child. While Gordy’s relationship with Ross is front and center in the musical, the kid (Rhonda Ross Kendrick, now 41 years old) is not mentioned – the mildest of the omissions in a script that takes chutzpah to new heights: Berry Gordy Jr. manages to turn the story of the music and musicians of an era into a biodrama of the wise and powerful Berry Gordy Jr.
But by the Act I finale, I had shed my resistance and fallen for this show. I realized this when the actor playing Marvin Gaye, Bryan Terrell Clark, sang “What’s Going On.” It is a song that Rolling Stone Magazine has ranked as the fourth greatest song of all time – in-between Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” – praised as “an exquisite plea for peace on Earth, sung by a man at the height of crisis.”
Like the other three dozen cast members playing 90 characters and singing an astonishing 60 songs in “Motown: The Musical,” Clark is not so much an impersonator as an interpreter — a performer who is clearly talented in his own right.
Now, in the musical, Marvin Gaye sings “What’s Going On” immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which happened in 1968, prompting a short scene, against a cheesy red-lit backdrop meant to represent Detroit set on fire, in which Berry Gordy Jr. expresses concern for his white employees during the riots that occurred in the assassination’s aftermath. But “What’s Going On” wasn’t actually released until 1971. And we don’t learn much about Marvin Gaye throughout the musical except in terms of his interaction with Berry Gordy Jr.; we see him complaining a lot, yet another person in Gordy’s life who doesn’t treat him as well as he deserves. In truth, Gaye’s story could fill a musical all on its own: A deeply and diversely talented artist and a restless, troubled man, he was shot dead by his cross-dressing preacher father.
But the failure to provide full or accurate context wound up not mattering to me. The song, sung first by Clark and then joined by the whole cast, brought on a wave of emotion, and a rush of memories — and it was only one of several such moments in the show.
This, I suspect, is how “Motown: The Musical” will work its magic on many people – those who grew up on the Motown Sound, or came to it after listening to the soundtrack to “The Big Chill” or watching “Murphy Brown”– or because their parents (or grandparents!) listened to it. Many who love the music of Motown will not be put off by the lame book from enjoying “Motown: The Musical.” For those unfamiliar with the music of Motown or the story behind it, this musical with its greatest-hits approach is as good an introduction to it as you are likely to get, despite Berry Gordy Jr.’s attempt at self-canonization.
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“Motown The Musical” begins and ends with the 25th anniversary Motown television special. We are in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1983, as The Four Tops and The Temptations rehearse a “battle of the bands” with some of their hits, e.g.
Sugar pie, honey bunch
You know that I love you
I can’t help myself
I love you and nobody else.
To anybody who knows about Motown, this is in one way extremely apt. Berry Gordy sold the record label just a few years later, earning $61 million on his initial investment of $800. The Motown label still exists, but the Motown era is defined by its first couple of decades.
But there is also a special irony in framing a musical called “Motown” with this particular TV show, since it is now remembered primarily for one thing – it was where Michael Jackson introduced the Moonwalk while singing “Billie Jean.” Since “Billie Jean” is not a Motown song (he had left for CBS Records by then), neither the adult Jackson nor a re-creation of his riveting performance are included in the depiction of the TV special – nor indeed is the adult Jackson in “Motown: The Musical” at all. Instead, the TV special becomes all about Berry Gordy Jr.
We see Berry Gordy Jr. (Brandon Victor Dixon) in his office, refusing to attend, despite entreaties from his staff that the performers want to see him there; they are “people who love you.”
“People who left me,” he says bitterly.
“You’re going to turn your back on the dream you started 25 years ago?”
“My dream started long before that.”
Cue the flashbacks. We see little Berry Gordy Jr. in 1938 in the Gordy household in Detroit during a triumphant fight of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, which segues into “Hey Joe (Black Like Me),” one of the four original and tuneful songs Gordy has co-written with Michael Lovesmith for the Broadway musical.
We advance 20 years and Gordy, after careers as a boxer, failed record store owner, cookware salesman and auto worker, has become a songwriter, selling to a then top recording artist Jackie Wilson. Wilson is portrayed by Eric LaJuan Summers, whose gymnastic shimmying and electrifying yelps while performing one of Gordy’s first hits, “Reet Petite,” is the most thoroughly thrilling of the many showstoppers in “Motown.” Frustrated by the practices of the record companies, Gordy asks his family to lend him money from its emergency fund to create his own. Brandon Victor Dixon, the skilled actor and singer who plays Gordy, then sings a Gordy-penned song made more popular when the Beatles recorded it:
The best things in life are free
But you can give them to the birds and bees
I need money! That’s what I want! That’s what i wa-aa-aa-ant!
That’s what I want!
It is one of the several times that the character Gordy is given an appropriate song to sing from the Motown catalogue. (The actual Gordy never sang professionally.)
The bulk of “Motown” is the succession of acts, interwoven with some insight into the workings of the Motown hit factory, and a few short scenes showing the difficulties of a black-owned business at a time of racial inequity and strife.
There is a lot packed in here — one glimpse of how overwhelming this show is: ESosa has designed nearly 400 costumes for it, 22 alone for Valisia LaKae, who plays Diana Ross (she also wears 11 wigs). Much is inevitably given short-shrift. Little Stevie Wonder makes an appearance but doesn’t perform. (Adult Stevie Wonder, played by Ryan Shaw, sings both “Happy Birthday” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”) The Jackson 5 don’t appear until almost two hours into the show, and then perform for about five minutes. The entire tragic story of Flo Ballard of The Supremes is reduced to a remark by Gordy.
But the omissions can’t compare to some of what Gordy chooses to dwell upon. A sequence that is sure to enter the annals of Broadway lore begins with the first time that Gordy and Ross sleep together. Gordy is unable to perform in bed (an intimate revelation that Gordy has included in the apparent belief that it somehow makes him come off as less of a megalomaniac.) “At least you have the power over everything else,” Ross says, and then gets out of bed and sings “I Hear A Symphony,” soon joined by the two other Supremes, with Diana effortlessly changing out of her nightclothes into another one of her gorgeous gowns.
What saves “Motown The Musical” from becoming a camp classic, or “Baby, It’s You” II, are the musical numbers. They are exquisitely entertaining, thanks to the adept musical arrangements by Ethan Popp, expert sound design by Peter Hylenski, choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams that offers the signature Motown moves mixed in with some exhilarating dancing that is more free-form and contemporary — and, of course, above all, the performers themselves. Stand-outs include (besides those I’ve already mentioned) Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson, Raymond Luke Jr. (who alternates with Jibreel Mawry) playing several of the performers as children, especially little Michael Jackson, Saycon Sengbloh (who was so terrific in Fela) as Martha Reeves, and N’Kenge as Mary Wells. Valisia LeKae shows what a charismatic presence she has as an actress and a singer when, in what is supposed to be Diana Ross’s first concert as a solo artist separate from The Supremes, she calls members of the audience to the stage to sing with her “Reach Out and Touch.” Director Charles Randolph-Wright deserves credit for taming the many-headed beast of Motown’s legacy. But let’s face it: Whatever else Berry Gordy Jr. was or wasn’t, he was a good showman, and, at age 83, he’s managed to put on another good show.
Motown The Musical
Book by Berry Gordy Jr. (“script consultants” David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan.)
Charles Randolph-Wright (Direction)
Warren Adams and Patricia Wilcox (Choreography)
David Korins (Scenic Design)
ESosa (Costume Design)
Natasha Katz (Lighting Design)
Peter Hylenski (Sound Design)
Daniel Brodie (Projection Design)
Ethan Popp (Musical Supervision, Arrangements and Orchestrations)
Bryan Crook (Co-Orchestrations and Additional Arrangements)
Zane Mark (Dance Arrangements)
Joseph Joubert (Musical Direction)
Brandon Victor Dixon
Timothy J. Alex
Bryan Terrell Clark
Rebecca E. Covington
Preston W. Dugger III
Lauren Lim Jackson
Milton Craig Nealy
Eric Lajuan Summers
Julius Thomas III
Daniel J. Watts
Donald Webber, Jr.
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
Ticket prices: $65.50 – $150.50