'Motown the Musical' makes for a memorable evening of much-loved music

Aaron Krause • Feb 10, 2016 at 8:00 PM

MIAMI — They swayed, they sang along, they clapped. Who knows, some in the audience perhaps even danced.

This was, after all, a performance of a national touring production of "Motown the Musical." And who among us can say we haven't been touched or moved by Berry Gordy's famed record company that spawned numerous stars and hits , uniting people of different races?

So yes, the diverse audience at a particular performance of the national tour, which is wending its way up north after its recent Miami engagement, were, well, engaged. Unfortunately, audience members in a certain section of downtown's Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts arrived well after the opening curtain and, with the ushers' flashlights, made it hard to hear what was happening on stage.

It's hard enough to keep pace with the show, which for the most part speeds by. Characters come and going so quickly, you struggle to know who's who.

Hopefully, audience members will display more respect during future stops, which include Columbus from Feb. 23-28 and Toledo March 29-April 3 (for more information, visit www.motownthemusical.com.)

Make no mistake; "Motown the Musical" is a rollicking, energizing show that will leave you nostalgic as you take in the music with which you grew up and danced to. The members of the fine, vivacious cast, some of whom have strong, rangy and expressive voices, deserve commendations.

But "Motown the Musical" is not a concert; it's a musical theater piece called a jukebox musical, which uses popular songs by a group or artist, not necessarily written for a particular show, to help tell a true or fictional story. In this case, the songs are written by individual artists or groups under the Motown company. These joyous, familiar songs try to help tell the true tale of Motown's creation and its influence on popular culture and the masses, uniting them and bettering the world through music.

The show's particularly relevant to today, with racial tensions making headlines. One of the show's most touching moments comes during the song "Reach Out and Touch," when audience members are encouraged to do just that to the person next to them.

Oftentimes, "Mowtown the Musical" works better as a concert than as a narrative. The show never offers much insight or depth into Gordy's character and the songs don't always fit neatly into the narrative, so that they flow naturally from dialogue into music. But there's a nice bookend; the play begins and ends with the Motown community celebrating the 25th anniversary of the company's founding.

Jukebox musicals are most effective when the chosen songs logically follow character-driven scenes, expanding upon their mood, the characters' thoughts, concerns, fears, hopes, etc. And there are times when appropriate songs naturally follow emotional scenes. A good chunk of the show follows Gordy's romance with Diana Ross, founding member and lead singer of The Supremes, perhaps Motown's most successful act.

Gordy sings "My Girl" after a pleasant moment with her.

We derive pleasure from jukebox musicals when there's at least one "villain" in the piece. This "villain," might be a record company hotshot telling a songwriter one of his pieces will never amount to anything. But we know the truth. So when such a person, in "Mowtown," tells Gordy "You're dreaming, what makes you think people will buy your records," we know better and feel better because we know the truth and feel like telling Gordy "You have our back."

As he's portrayed in the musical, you can't help but admire Gordy's tenacity, such as when he proclaims "I'm never giving up on my dreams. I'm gonna make some beautiful music. Beautiful as a.... beautiful as a..."

He grasps for spoken words, but they're elusive, so he breaks into song. That happens in any effective musical; spoken words sometimes aren't enough to convey the extent of a character's emotion, so he/she sings..and if that's not enough, the character also dances.

There were plenty obstacles Gordy faced in creating Motown and keeping it thriving. While they're part of the musical, his initial rise to fame and success comes too quickly. One moment, we see the 8-year-old Gordy celebrating famous boxer Joe Lewis' renown championship victory over a German boxer. It was a win that greatly inspired the boy to achieve something great himself. But it seems like in the blink of an eye after young Gordy witnesses the boxing match, Motown is suddenly a huge success.

Narrative and pacing issues aside, the company of actors is mostly first-rate. The only negatives are some speak before they're in the spotlight and at times don't wait until the audience is finished clapping before proceeding.

As embodied by Chester Gregory and Allison Semmes, Gordy and Ross display a strong chemistry. During one intimate moment, he carries her off the stage. Like any relationship, there were ups and downs between the two, and Gordy, who wrote the book for the musical, charts these moments.

Gregory imbues Berry with a refreshing optimism and drive without trying to impersonate the real-life character.

Semmes has a soft, sweet demeanor as Ross, but can be forceful when Ross argues with Gordy.

Jesse Nager nails Smokey Robinson's high-pitched voice while Nik Walker, who played Marvin Gaye during the performance I saw, has a commanding presence and is driven as the American soul singer, songwriter and musician.

The cast executes Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams' vibrant choreography with verve and company members' deftly fit their expressive singing voices to the mood and tone of songs.

One young man who deserves special recognition is J.J. Batteast, whose dancing skills and singing voice, which at one point seemed to reach the ceiling, can be mistaken for a veteran. The child played young Gordy, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson during the reviewed performance like a seasoned professional.

Gordy wanted Motown's music to reach all people and the frequently-changing colors illuminating the backdrop and projections, which also includes scenes from real-life historical events, appropriately resemble a rainbow of diversity.

Lighting designer Natasha Katz tones down the lighting during intimate scenes between Gordy and Ross.

The costume designer, known only as "Esosa," has designed clothes that appropriately define each group or individual within Motown. She sets Gordy apart by making him the sole person wearing a white shirt without a jacket. That contrasts with the bursting colors of the other costumes.

The scenery, which seamlessly rolls on and off the stage, comprises a series of panels that shift the focus from one side of the stage to the other. The design, by David Korins, makes it clear where a particular scene is set.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright, without making the production drag, needs to apply the brakes a bit to the pace, so that we can keep up with the action.

The director does away with the "fourth wall." Semmes, as Ross, walks offstage and interacts with the audience, handpicking a few to sing with her. You never know who it'll be (beware those of you in the first few rows).

At the end of the show, Gordy, at the 25th anniversary celebration, thinks back to his 8-year-old self, the little boy who witnessed boxer Lewis become champion.

Gordy also became a champion in the eyes of so many by triumphantly bringing joy to multitudes against a backdrop of racial prejudice, financial obstacles and other roadblocks.

Appropriately, the show ends with the song "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

Log onto www.mowtownthemusical.com for dates, times, tour stops and ticket prices.

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