Motown: The Musical

  • Our critic's rating:
    March 1, 2013

    Seriously, have you ever been to a musical where the entire audience hummed along with every song? Or clapped? Or sang? Or cheered? Hmnn!

    Well, then you just might want to get on over to see this show.

    Don’t expect a musical in the truest sense of the word. There is a sort of book that moves us through Barry Gordy’s life, but it is pretty darn flimsy. The main through line is his marriage to Diana Ross, about which I didn’t know. It provides an interesting background to this tale of a man so driven to succeed that the people in whom he invested his time caught the bug as well. When it came time for them to grow in another direction they all jumped ship, which left Gordy alone and bitter. This musical seems to be more of an iconic journey that he has created for himself. A hero’s journey a la Joseph Campbell.

    But when the hero tells the hero’s journey, there is something missing. Like perspective and story line.

    To make up for that lack, it was decided to include 63 songs. Count ‘em. Oh, not the whole songs – except for a few here and there, most notably Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand that seems to go on forever. Rather, the entire evening is a sort of medley. We begin with the Four Tops and the Temptations having a sing-off at a rehearsal for the 1983 Motown Reunion. But Barry Gordy – Motown’s founder – is nowhere to be seen. Barry (Brandon Victor Dixon) is having a hissy fit back home because he is still pissed off at all the talent that jumped ship as other labels swooped in.

    In order that we understand his petulance we are given a road trip through Motown’s history. The money borrowed from his family. The purchase of the house dubbed “Hitsville USA” and the first singers he brought in to make into stars: Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown), Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark) and the teenage Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae) who had not graduated from high school when she, Flo and Mary appeared at Motown’s office.

    The rest is literally a cavalcade of stars featuring The Temptations, Mary Wells, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five. The costume and wig changes alone are enough to make your head spin. It is unfortunate that more of these excellent performers are not singled out, but they are chameleons in this production and move with the speed of light and the grace of angels.

    Mr. Gordy gets derailed from his trajectory more than once with the focus on his relationship with Diana Rosss. He does, however, give a nod to writers like Norman Whitfield and Brian Holland, Herbert Lamont Doxier and Edward Holland, Jr. (collectively referred to as HDH) and makes clear that the writing was flowing from everyone. People wrote for themselves as well as one another. It was a brainstorming marathon, and the way Gordy tells it he was at the helm. His insistence that everyone compete with one another was also his undoing, for when it came time for them to leap into a new level of creativity they had no trouble leaving Gody in the dust.

    There are many, many holes in the story, and the one glaring oddity is the casual reference to the tours in the South where these people risked their lives. In this production it is given a mere nod and turned into a comedy scene at which people were actually laughing. And the other sad oversight is the choreography. The singing groups of the 1960’s weren’t dancers. Their movements were trim, tight and defined. This cast does way too much and tries way too hard in their physical depictions – it looks sloppy.

    On the other hand the voices are sublime, and the four and five part harmonies will give you goose bumps. As to why Gordy didn’t settle for an excellent concert and let the music speak for itself – who knows.

    The story doesn’t hold water, but the music reminds you that Motown is taking up some serious real estate in your memory bank.

    "Dramatically slapdash but musically vibrant."
    Charles Isherwood for New York Times

    "Suffers from being sketchy, earnest and sometimes corny."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "The show fares best with the music."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "If you are looking to bathe in nostalgia evoked by beloved tunes..., this is the show for you."
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    "The only thing hot in 'Motown' is the music."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "Offers a deep immersion in pleasurable nostalgia for Baby Boomers."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "Narrowly self-serving perspective and simplistic connect-the-dots plotting, ... But there’s no denying the power and energy of the show’s arsenal of killer tunes."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "Jukebox musical is a mess, but with these songs, most audiences won't care"
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety