MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
By Gary Murray
Starring Josh Tower, Allison Semmes and Jason Nager
Book by Berry Gordy
Music from the Legendary Motown Catalogue
Choreography by Patricia Wilson &Warren Adams
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
The jukebox musical has fallen out of favor on Broadway in the last few years. The idea of using well-known songs to re-imagine a story was well used in Mama Mia and nothing breeds repetition like success. The latest to hit the bright-light boards is Motown the Musical. It plays at The Performing Arts Center at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. It is the finale of the successful 2014/15 season. Tickets are available through Ticket master.
The story is told through the eyes of Berry Gordy (Josh Tower) and it is based on his book To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories. One expects the play to slant in the favor of the founder of Motown and those expectations are met.
Starting in 1983 with the rehearsal of the Motown 25th Anniversary Special, the play just explodes with the Four Tops and the Temptations getting ready for the big show. The problem is that Berry Gordy says he will not attend the ceremony. Then we go back to the beginning.
Berry Gordy, as a young boy, wanted to be a boxer. After a few attempts at different jobs, Berry becomes a songwriter and composes “Reet Petite” for Jackie Wilson. Eventually, Gordy realized that the real money is not in writing songs but producing them and he turns a small Detroit house into his headquarters for hit making. We see him craft the first bits of talent with Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson.
A large part of Act One is performances by Motown Artists on tour in the South. We see the segregated theaters, labeled “White” and “Colored” and the troubles had by those first tours.
There is also the relationship with Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) and the Supremes. The events are mimicked in Dream Girls and the Berry character is not shown in the best of light. This is more of the other side to the story. The truth about this super-group lies somewhere in the middle.
The reason to see this play is to marvel at the performances. This is a large cast that doubles and triples on so many historical roles, some famous and some minor. Some do straight impersonation of the stars and others become the people they claim. In Act One, Jarvis R Manning, Jr. becomes Jackie Wilson. He jumps and slides while singing “Reet Petite”. Also in Act One Martina Sykes has a show-stopping moment when she plays Mary Wells. Both performers deserved more time on stage.
The audience was drawn in the most when the five young men came out to become the Jackson 5. The actors danced and pranced with such hits as “A-B-C” and “I Want You Back”. But, the group truly nails “I’ll Be There.” The audience craved more songs by the group.
Act Two is the much more radical aspects of the culture. Berry still wanted to be what his label stated “The Sound of Young America” while Marvin Gaye wanted something different. Act Two also gets a giant Diana Ross segment that becomes an audience participation number with “Reach out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.”
Josh Tower doesn’t play Berry Gordy but he becomes Berry Gordy in what is a career defining role. He commits to the original songs composed for the show (the weakest single element of the play) with a booming voice that is still warm and slightly sweet. It is an instrument that needs another venue to shine.
At first, Allison Semmes was not that convincing as Lady D. By the end of the performance, she had become every aspect of the diva, commanding every corner of the stage. One imagines that she could command a stage of 20,000 in Madison Square Garden with a flippant little effort.
Another big reason to catch Motown The Musical is the technical aspects of the show. The proscenium arch is a moving set of beams, lit multicolored. It is a mechanical marvel that moves with simple precision. The far background has projection screen that explode in the colors of the 1960s.
There are so many stories within the history of Motown that need to be told and Motown The Musical barely scratches the surface. Each facet of Berry Gordy’s life is a tale of Shakespearian legend, full of sex, back-stabbing and intrigue. This play is much more of a highlight reel than an exploration of a person.
Motown The Musical is a fun night of theater with music that is full of joy. It is a jump out of your seat, clap your hands and dance in the isles kind of musical. It is what a jukebox musical does best; it is a reminder of classic music from a bygone era.