From Jersey Boys to Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, there have been numerous recent jukebox musicals that have chronicled the lives of popular artists. What makes Motown: The Musical an anomaly, is that the production is a rare example where the book was written by the man largely responsible for the events on stage. The Broadway hit was conceived by the founder of the Motown record label, Berry Gordy, and is inspired by his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. With the exception of a few new show tunes written by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith, the focus is on the well-known selections featured in “The Legendary Motown Catalog.”
The story begins in 1983, as a bitter Berry (Julius Thomas III) plans to skip appearing on the television special, “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. As with the case of many tales based on true events, the narrative suddenly goes back in time to depict what lead to the creation of the American record company.
The funky orchestra, led by music director/conductor/keyboardist Darryl Archibald opens the nearly three hour evening with The Temptations and the Four Tops competing in a “Battle of the Stars” singing songs such as “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “Baby I Need Your Loving.” Director, Charles Randolph-Wright stages the introduction with enthusiastic style and the choreography from Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams accurately pays homage to the bands. This exuberant, full-throated sequence lets the audience know that Gordy’s narrative will be nothing less than a love letter to the singers that have worked with him.
What happens afterwards in Berry’s house slows the energy as ham-fisted dialogue attempts to set up his dilemma as to whether he should appear at the Auditorium. Luckily, Gordy’s writing quickly becomes looser and less self-serious when the plot skips to the 1950s. There is a thrilling feeling watching Berry interact with relatively unknown talents including Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager) and Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse).
One of the strongest aspects of Gordy’s writing is that he does not depict himself as a martyr. Gordy does make himself appear like a passionate dreamer, but is portrayed at times as arrogant, controlling and unjustifiably resentful.
Thomas III does not shy away from any of these personality traits, while also remaining likable throughout the entire journey. This is mainly due to his rapport with Nager, Muse and Allison Semmes, as the lead singer of The Supremes, Diana Ross.
The majority of the ensemble members get to play at least one famous icon, but Nager, Muse and Semmes stand out the most because they have the biggest dramatic moments. Also, young Reed L. Shannon needs to be mentioned, because he was clearly a crowd favorite on opening night at the San Digeo Civic Theatre. He seemed to love every moment on stage playing a youthful Berry, Stevie Wonder and most impressively, Michael Jackson. In just a handful of scenes, Shannon sings several hit tunes such as “ABC” and “I’ll Be There” that beautifully honor the late “King of Pop.” He has a potentially bright future ahead of him.
Although there will be theatregoers who will find nothing to fault with the frequently lively theatrical piece, certain flaws should be addressed. Esosa’s lavish costumes, Natasha Katz’s frequently color changing lighting and David Korins snazzy scenery are so effective in bringing Gordy’s world to life, that Daniel Brodie’s projections do not always feel necessary. There are times when Brodie’s video imagery enhances the atmosphere, yet there are other times when his work can feel excessive.
In addition, certain non-black roles come across as exaggerated caricatures as opposed to actual people.
Since a good amount of musical numbers are shortened, there will be those that miss certain verses from popular tunes. Regarding issues, this turns out to be the most minor, because giving all the melodies their due would result in a six plus hour event.
With all of that being said, how can one resist a grand celebration of singers who have stood the test of time? Even with occasional melancholy and problems, Gordy has crafted a wild party that will leave viewers exhilarated.