'Motown: The Musical': Theater Review

Motown: The Musical Still - H 2013
Joan Marcus

Motown: The Musical Still - H 2013

The non-stop hit parade almost makes you overlook the artless patchwork threading the songs together.

Berry Gordy's whirlwind chronicle of the barrier-breaking Detroit music empire that spawned Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and countless other greats opens on Broadway with massive advance box office numbers, totaling $16 million.

NEW YORK -- You can’t hurry love, but apparently you can hurtle through 25 years of pop history without depth or complexity if Motown: The Musical is any indication. With its narrowly self-serving perspective and simplistic connect-the-dots plotting, Berry Gordy’s book makes Jersey Boys look like Eugene O’Neill. And Charles Randolph-Wright’s direction struggles to get a fluid handle on the music empire founder’s superficial chronicle of his legendary Detroit hit factory. But there’s no denying the power and energy of the show’s arsenal of killer tunes.

With a song selection that dips into some 60 nuggets from the Motown catalog, ranging from late-‘50s Jackie Wilson to early-‘80s Teena Marie and Rick James, the musical will be catnip to Baby Boomers, particularly the black theatergoers that are a coveted Broadway demographic. Having registered four consecutive weeks of preview grosses north of $1 million while racking up a stellar $16 million advance, the evidence suggests this is a brand that might not require critical support.

The production appears to have been cast primarily with an eye toward vocal skills, and there’s considerable pleasure to be had watching stand-ins for Motown stars tear through their hits. Among the most memorably showcased numbers are Wilson’s “Reet Petite,” The Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” Diana Ross & the Supremes doing “Stop in the Name of Love” on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a terrific Jackson 5 medley led by Raymond Luke Jr., who brings down the house with his effortless charm as the young Michael Jackson.

The perennial challenge of incorporating pop standards into a Broadway show is the ubiquitous fadeout ending, which doesn’t work in a musical, where numbers need to close on a button. That means the songs here tend either to be abruptly cut off or to tack on big finishes that pander to audiences accustomed to American Idol-style vocal grandstanding. That latter choice mars what’s otherwise a punchy rendition of “Dancing in the Street,” with Saycon Sengbloh ably subbing for Martha Reeves.

The classic Motown sound was more rigorously clean. Its tight arrangements, silky vocals, crisp backup lines and sweet harmonies were driven by the addictive backbeat of the Funk Brothers, the crew of largely uncredited session musicians whose story was told in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Gordy once again here underplays their contribution.

However, the music generally will be a close enough facsimile to satisfy all but the most scholarly purists, and the period dance moves are great fun. Some performers, like Eric LaJuan Summers -- he multitasks as Wilson, the Contours lead vocalist, a Four Top and a Jackson, as well as James in a hilarious bit of ‘80s vulgarity -- are distinctive enough that you don’t miss the originals.

The show’s most nagging problem is Gordy’s lack of finesse as a dramatist. He creates a fragile peg for the saga by starting with the 25th anniversary Motown television special being taped before a live audience in Pasadena in 1983. At his home in Los Angeles, Berry (Brandon Victor Dixon) is vowing not to attend the reunion celebration, grumbling that his stars have moved on to more lucrative deals and forgotten all that he did for them. Will he or won’t he show? 

Right off the bat this introduces a poor-underappreciated-me note into the musical, even while Gordy acknowledges that such Motown linchpins as the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label over profit-sharing issues. Mostly, the dismantling of the Motown family is attributed to the muscle of music conglomerates luring away talent with big-money contracts. Gordy tends to give himself a pass for any role he played in that erosion when he moved the company’s base to Los Angeles in 1972.

Likewise, he paints a somewhat glossy picture of the ambition that drove Ross (Valisia LeKae) from Supremes centerpiece to solo superstardom. Audiences familiar with that history -- even just via the fictionalized version of Dreamgirls -- will find a more forgiving depiction here of both Gordy and “The Boss.” LeKae is a little stiff as the starry-eyed schoolgirl angling to join the Motown roster. But her vocal mimicry of Ross is uncanny, and her performance blossoms along with the artist she’s portraying. Spectacularly outfitted by costumer ESosa, she’s at her best in vainglorious renditions of “Remember Me” and “Reach Out and Touch,” the latter incorporating amusing audience interaction in which LeKae slyly suggests the phoniness beneath the I-love-you-all stage persona.

While the storytelling is skewed, Gordy does a serviceable job of charting the evolution of Motown, the formation of its formidable stable of artists and their legacy as a force of change in a still-segregated society. These songs pushed black music across the color barrier to mainstream acceptance by blending soul sounds with rock, pop and gospel influences. 

As a starting point for his recap, Gordy flashes back to the formative childhood moment when boxer Joe Louis won the 1938 championship fight against the Nazi-endorsed German Max Schmeling. Buoyed by that milestone moment for black America, the young Berry declares he wants to be the next Joe Louis. “Just keep God inside you and be the best you you can be,” Pop Gordy (Milton Craig Nealy) tells him.

That kind of on-the-nose dialogue is a constant in the show, grating all the more because it so often fragments exhilarating numbers. When someone observes at the Jackson 5 audition that they could be the biggest group ever, Berry responds gravely, “Yeah, but could they handle it?” Even more ham-fisted is having Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark) reject Berry’s claim of protecting him like a son by snarling, “I got a dad.” (If anyone forgot that Gaye was fatally shot by his father in 1984, the audience’s knowing murmur jogs the memory.) Such unsophisticated treatment tends to sap the story of drama and conflict. Figures like Gaye and Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown) get more stage time than walk-ons like Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells and Gladys Knight, but Gordy and Ross are the only characters given any real dimension.

Dixon’s smooth manner and easy charisma help him carry the show through the clunky book scenes. And he makes stirring work of “Can I Close the Door,” one of a handful of new songs written by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith, even if the lyrics again paint the Motown guru as a martyr abandoned by those he nurtured and loved.

Borrowing from the Mamma Mia! template, the song cues tend mostly toward thudding literalness – “Money (That’s What I Want)” when Berry hits up the family for a loan; “War” during a legal battle with the defecting H-D-H; “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” when rumors spread of the L.A. move and Diana going solo; “What’s Going On” after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Other song choices, however, are mystifyingly random, none more so than Diana suddenly cooing “I Hear a Symphony” when Berry fails to perform in bed in a Paris hotel suite.

But irrespective of Motown’s crude musical-theater craftsmanship, most folks will joyfully surrender to the non-stop blitz of hits, even if diehard fans might have issues with some glaring omissions. Not getting to hear Smokey croon either “The Tracks of My Tears” or “Tears of a Clown” seems truly a cause for weeping, and it’s just mean to tease us with a mention of “Love Child” and not sing it.

Jukebox selection quibbles aside, the point is that these songs are embedded so deep into our musical DNA that they all bring an invigorating rush of familiarity. No matter how shaky the narrative context there’s still an enormous kick from watching them performed live that no iPod playlist can match.

Venue: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Brandon Victor Dixon, Valisia LeKae, Charl Brown, Bryan Terrell Clark, Raymond Luke Jr., Jibreel Mawry, Timothy J. Alex, Michael Arnold, Nicholas Christopher, Rebecca E. Covington, Ariana DeBose, Andrea Dora, Wilkie Ferguson III, Marva Hicks, Tiffany Janene Howard, Sasha Hutchings, Jawan M. Jackson, Morgan James, John Jellison, Grasan Kingsberry, Marielys Molina, Sydney Morton, Maurice Murphy, Jesse Nager, Milton Craig Nealy, N’Kenge, Dominic Nolfi, Saycon Sengbloh, Ryan Shaw, Jamal Story, Eric LaJuan Summers, Ephraim M. Sykes, Julius Thomas III, Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber Jr.

Director: Charles Randolph-Wright

Book: Berry Gordy, based on his book, “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown”

Script consultants: David Goldsmith, Dick Scanlan

Music and lyrics: Motown catalog; additional songs by Berry Gordy and Michael Lovesmith

Set designer: David Korins

Costume designer: ESosa

Lighting designer: Natasha Katz

Sound designer: Peter Hylenski

Projection designer: Daniel Brodie

Choreographers: Patricia Wilcox, Warren Adams

Music director: Joseph Joubert

Music supervision, arrangements: Ethan Popp

Orchestrations: Ethan Popp, Bryan Crook

Executive producer: Nina Lannan

Presented by Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris, Berry Gordy