You know the songs, you know the stars who sang them, but do you know the man behind the music? If you know the name Motown you probably know the founder, Berry Gordy, and Motown the Musical hits the stage to tell Gordy’s story, from his humble beginnings as a child with a dream to the rise of his musical empire. But as empires rise, they also must fall and the show tells the story, both good and bad.
The show starts on May 16, 1983, the day the NBC special Motown 25 is to air. The only problem is the company’s founder is refusing to attend. He’s upset by all of the stars coming back to Motown for this special after most of them had left the company, and Gordy, for greener pastures.
We then go back to Gordy as a child and then a young man with a dream, his struggles to get anywhere in the music business, and finally getting a loan from his family to buy a building which would become Hitsville U.S.A. By his side from the beginning was his friend Smokey Robinson, who also introduced Gordy to three high school girls with ambitions – Mary, Florence and Diane, who became Diana and they became The Supremes … but they could not score a hit record to save them. But as “the Queen of Motown” Mary Wells moved on, The Supremes finally had a hit record and the company really took off.
Gordy and Ross began a romance, Motown was turning out hit after hit, but the sharks started coming to steal Gordy’s talents with offers of more money and greater control. One by one, his “family” was breaking up, as was his relationship with Diana, and Motown was on the verge of being gobbled up by a larger music conglomerate. Can Gordy keep it together, and get over the resentment of what felt like betrayals? You’ll have to check out the show to find out.
Motown the Musical is a bit of a mixed bag as it starts, with a first act that’s a bit frenetic moving through a timeline that starts in 1938 when Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling (a symbolic USA over Germany victory) that inspired a young Barry to follow his dreams. We move quickly through the building of Motown, JFK’s and MLK’s assassinations, and the Vietnam War, all with pieces of Motown hits of the eras performed fast and furious. The first act ends with a powerful performance of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
The second act really finds its focus on the Gordy/Ross relationship and the failing fortunes of Motown. One of the highlights of Act 2 is when Diana Ross makes her first solo Las Vegas appearance and suddenly the audience is her Vegas audience. Miss Ross leaves the stage to come into the audience, picks some folks to help her sing “Reach Out and Touch” and gets the audience to join hands in the air to “make this world a better place.” It was a great moment that really got the audience invested in the show. Another scene before that was when The Supremes are hosting The Hollywood Palace variety show and Ross introduces the newest and youngest members of the Motown family, the Jackson 5. Young Michael at the opening night performance was played by J.J. Batteast (the role alternates with another young man) and he set the roof on fire with his Jackson performance. I can’t call it an impersonation because he truly embodied Jackson at that age. It was a remarkable performance, making you feel almost as if you were transported back in time and seeing young Michael for the first time. Bravo!
The cast members all have terrific voices, not impersonating the original artists’ song, but giving a close enough approximation to make it all feel real. Allison Semmes as Diana Ross was a standout, from her acting to her singing, sounding the most like the original than anyone else. And although Gordy was not a recording artist, he does get to sing a few songs in the show. Chester Gregory really gave life to Gordy the man, and he has an amazingly powerful voice that, when he stood on stage alone and poured the emotion into a number, the audience was sitting in stunned silence. Both Semmes and Gregory give great performances.
Unfortunately, I have to say Jesse Nager, as Smokey Robinson, and Jarran Muse, as Marvin Gaye, really bugged me a bit with their character interpretations. They played Robinson and Gaye more like sitcom versions of the real people with Nager doing a little too much “winking” at the audience with his constant falsetto and Muse portraying Gaye as perpetually stoned. Both sang wonderfully though, and I don’t blame them for the acting because many of the supporting players from the woman who owned the house that became Hitsville to Ed Sullivan to a movie producer are all more caricatures than real people. That, obviously, falls to a directorial decision and it really didn’t work for me.
The technical aspects of the show are superlative with a simple set consisting of video screens and beams that are constantly moving around the stage to create various sets, with other pieces of furniture, walls, and other set pieces magically sliding on and off stage. There really is a big “wow factor” with the set. And the orchestra works their collective butts off providing the powerful music for the songs.
If you’re a fan of the classic Motown sound and want to relive a time gone by seeing these actors bring the artists, including Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Mary Wells, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Teena Marie and more to life on stage singing their hits, then Motown the Musical is the show for you! The show is currently on a stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre thru Sunday, March 13 (and every show is nearly sold out!), before moving on to East Lansing, MI on March 15. Other cities on the tour include Hartford, Toledo, Louisville, Jacksonville, Austin, San Antonio, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, Norfolk, Tampa and more. The show will also be returning to Broadway beginning July 12 for 18 weeks.
To find tickets for a performance in your area, visit Ticketmaster.com through our affiliate link. And ticket purchase through the link will help support our efforts and you’ll get to see a great show!