Oriental Theatre. Book by Berry Gordy. Music and lyrics by various writers. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. With Clifton Oliver, Allison Semmes. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Motown the Musical offers such a dazzling array of snippets from the record label's 1960s and ’70s heyday—more than 50 genre-defining hits, from “ABC” to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”—that you’re likely to come away with a new appreciation for Motown’s startling impact on popular music.
You may also come away with a new appreciation for Dreamgirls. That 1981 musical was loosely based on the rise of the Supremes, but its fictionalized characters were far more fleshed out and, frankly, believable than Motown’s.
Motown the Musical has a book by label founder Berry Gordy, Jr., based on his memoir To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown, and it’s no surprise that Berry Gordy makes Berry Gordy look good. From the opening of his Hitsville U.S.A. studio in Detroit, through his affair with Diana Ross, to his barely acknowledged legal dispute with songwriting-producing team Holland-Dozier-Holland and all the rest of Motown’s ups and downs, the musical’s B.G. (Clifton Oliver) comes across as never less than reasonable, even noble. In this remarkably favorable feat of autohagiography, Gordy’s only fault was that he worked too hard.
No one other than Gordy gets any real development; even major players Ross (Allison Semmes) and Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Christopher) remain blank slates, and Gordy engages in some weird onstage score-settling with the late Marvin Gaye (Jarron Muse). Real-life behind-the-scenes figures like Suzanne de Passe come and go in near anonymity as director Charles Randolph-Wright speeds toward the next musical number.
But if you can ignore the book scenes, many of those numbers are re-created entertainingly, even thrillingly here and there. Randolph-Wright employs his large, talented cast on a grand scale, with energetic, well-executed choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. Many of the song excerpts are brief enough to leave you wanting the whole tune—especially if you could trade in Gordy’s dubious history.