'Motown: The Musical': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
From left: Krisha Marcano, Allison Semmes and Trisha Jeffrey in 'Motown: The Musical'
The hits just keep on coming in this formulaic but audience-pleasing show.
11/13/2016

The story of Berry Gordy and his iconic Detroit record label returns to Broadway in this jukebox musical showcasing dozens of Motown classics.

Motown: The Musical seems as unstoppable as the music of the legendary record label itself. This show, adapted from founder Berry Gordy's memoir, had a successful run on Broadway three years ago, recouping its considerable production costs in fairly short order. But before ticket sales started sagging too dramatically, the producers closed the show and scaled it down for a national tour. Since then it has played major cities across the country, as well as being produced in London. The retooled version now touches down on Broadway again for what has been announced as a limited 18-week engagement.

While the lesser production values are somewhat noticeable, it probably won't affect audience enthusiasm for this jukebox musical, which shoehorns dozens of Motown classics — and a few original songs, written by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith, that inevitably suffer by comparison — into a fragmented recounting of the label's rise and fall. The musical's chief problem remains the clunky, self-serving book by Gordy himself, which skims the story's surface while providing the opportunity for a gallery of talented performers to recreate expertly the classic songs so beloved by baby boomers.

The narrative is framed around the landmark 1983 television special celebrating Motown's 25th anniversary, with Gordy (Chester Gregory), bitter over the defection of his biggest stars and subsequent loss of his company, refusing to attend. The ensuing flashbacks depict him as a young man who first gains a name for himself writing hit songs for Jackie Wilson (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) before starting his scrappy indie record label, located in a modest Detroit house featuring a sign emblazoned with the words "Hitsville, U.S.A."

The show's first half concentrates on the label's tremendous early success thanks to such stars as Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Mary Wells, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and others, as well as the songwriting team of Holland/Dozier/Holland. Included in the roster are The Supremes, whose lead singer Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) became the trio's star while romantically involved with Gordy. The ups and downs of their relationship are chronicled in the show, sometimes with embarrassing detail: While his candor is admirable, did Berry really have to include a scene in which he's unable to perform sexually with the gorgeous singer? (She consoles him by breaking into a rendition of — what else? — "I Hear a Symphony.")

You can feel the audience's delight as one hit song after another is presented, even if many of them are unfortunately truncated or shoehorned into medleys. Less effective are the attempts at integrating songs into the book, including one awkward scene in which Berry and Ross serenade each other with "You're All I Need to Get By."

The proceedings take on somewhat greater dramatic urgency in the second act, with the social unrest of the late 1960s reflected in such powerful numbers as "What's Going On," "War" and "Ball of Confusion." Ross goes solo and achieves stardom on her own, leading to one of the show's more entertaining segments, set in Las Vegas, in which she invites a couple of eager audience members to join her onstage in a song.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps things flowing seamlessly, with the musical numbers and dramatic scenes blending into one another at a rapid enough pace to keep boredom from settling in.

The large ensemble, almost all playing multiple roles, are able stand-ins for the iconic stars, with Jesse Nager nailing Robinson's trademark falsetto and Jarran Muse making for a suitably smooth Gaye. J.J. Batteast (one of two child performers alternating in the role) brings the house down as a young Michael Jackson, with his very appearance invoking shrieks as if the real thing had come back to life. Semmes is a sexy and disarmingly funny Ross, and Gregory, although lacking much opportunity to display the killer singing and dancing skills previously showcased in such productions as Dreamgirls and Hairspray, effectively anchors the show as Gordy.  

Still, it's hard not to see the entire enterprise as a glorified tribute show, the kind that wows them in Vegas and has become all too commonplace on the Great White Way. Lacking the theatrical inventiveness of such similarly styled predecessors as Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, Motown: The Musical unfortunately squanders its artistic, if not commercial, potential.

Venue: Nederlander Theatre, New York City
Cast: Chester Gregory, Allison Semmes, Jesse Nager, Jarran Muse, J.J. Batteast, Leon Outlaw, Jr., Nik Alexander, Erick Buckley, Chante Carmel, Chadae, Anissa Felix, Talya Groves, Rob Harrelson, Lynorris Evans, Robert Hartwell, Trisha Jeffrey, Jamie LaVerdiere, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Loren Lott, Jarvis M. Banning, Jr., Krisha Marcano, Marq Moss, Rashad Naylor, Ramone Owens, Olivia Puckett, Nicholas Ryan, Jamison Scott, Joey Stone, Doug Storm, Martina Sykes, Julius Thomas III, Nik Walker, Galen J. Williams
Book: Berry Gordy
Director: Charles Randolph-Wright
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Peetr Hylenski
Projection designer: Daniel Brodie
Choreographers: Patricia Wilcox, Warren Adams
Presented by Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris and Berry Gordy

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