Michael L. Quintos
Evidenced by numerous past experiences, most savvy theatergoers tend to have lowered expectations when it comes to jukebox musicals—those unabashedly nostalgia-baiting stage shows usually packaged with familiar music from one genre, era, or artist for its score as it moves along not-so-secretly disguised as musical theater.
While, of course, there certainly have been notable exceptions over the years that have surprised and have even delighted both audiences and critics alike, on the whole, most architects of these jukebox musicals are perhaps more motivated by the lure of familiarity—an easier, less risky feat than, say, what an original, created-from-scratch musical may entice. Thus, on the surface, it seems that the mere existence of a memorable songbook is a good enough reason for a show to exist in the first place… so who cares how effectively told its accompanying story may be?
Which is why I am slightly torn about MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL, the rousingly entertaining, exuberantly-performed stage spectacular now in its initial leg of its national tour. Now playing a rather long sit-down engagement at Hollywood's famed Pantages Theatre through June 7, this dazzling, high-octane extravaganza of music and dance is a visual and aural feast that gamely crams in more than 60—yes, 60—hits from the groundbreaking record company's discography.
Sure, that amazing catalog certainly sounds like a great jumping-off point for a musical, but in the end, the whole thing comes off more as a first-rate concert re-creation rather than a typical book musical, in which the songs exist in service of the story rather than the other way around.
Not that there's anything wrong with that (well, in most instances, anyway)...because, in the end, this made-for-mass-appeal Broadway musical about the founding of one of America's most successful recording imprints succeeds in its ultimate goal: entertaining the audience and reminding everyone of the legacy of these songs.
Yes, for more than two vigorous hours, MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL provides one helluva show, packed to the brim with incredible, history-defining songs that span decades into Detroit's staggering record-making machine. Much like the super-pumped, celebrity-packed audience in attendance for the show's Hollywood Opening Night, I, too, got swept up in the electricity of hearing awesome hit after awesome hit. These songs have not only been a huge part of my own musical education growing up, they also prompted my own deep love of soul and R&B music.
So it's no surprise, then, to say that for many, the Motown catalog is the true star of this particular showcase, especially when staged and sung in such rapid succession in this manner. Song after gloriously-sung song, you can't help but feel awed by the undeniable, hit-making prowess of Motown founder and artistic impresario Berry Gordy, here played with convincing swagger and likability by Julius Thomas III.
Not only is Gordy responsible for creating and curating some of history's most beloved pop and R&B music, he is also responsible for personally nurturing the careers of the talented artists that performed these hits (and, apparently in Diana Ross' case, she received extra special personal nurturing). His record label and the music it churned out not only forever altered the face of popular, chart-topping music, but Motown itself also helped usher a signature sound that had universal, "crossover" appeal that broke through radio stations that have long denied them airplay (plus, it's hard to deny this music's large role in the advancement of civil rights, too).
MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL, for all intents and purposes, is one enjoyable greatest hits compilation come to life, armed with spry staging by director Charles Randolf Wright; lively choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams; dazzling visuals by David Korins and Daniel Brodie; superb retro costumes by Esosa; spirited orchestrations by Ethan Popp and Bryan Cook; and an ensemble cast that's about as talented as you can possibly assemble on one stage. Seriously, this amazing cast can sing anything. In their talented auspices, the Motown catalog is as truly alive and vibrant as ever (Oh, and extra kudos, too, considering Gordy himself plus Smokey Robinson were in attendance Opening Night).
As aggressively entertaining as it is, though, this jukebox musical does have one minor weak spot: its book, credited to Gordy himself (with assists from David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan) based on Gordy's own memoir To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, which recounts the history of his label from its early beginnings up until its 25th Anniversary celebration. As such, the rushed, narrative gospel herein is a personally-approved version of Gordy's story, told from his own perspective and his perspective alone—much like a carefully-crafted press release.
Thus, in the show's very flattering, very pro-Gordy storyline, we're allowed to see an interesting, albeit perhaps a tad filtered look into his life, which does include interactions between him and some of his lauded artists such as close pal Smokey Robinson (the winning Jesse Nager), the apparently too-madly-introspective Marvin Gaye (the lovely-voiced Jarran Muse), and, yes, even tiny pre-pubescent Michael Jackson (played by scene-stealing Leon Outlaw, Jr. at this performance, who pulls triple duty as not only MJ but also young Gordy and young Stevie Wonder).
And, of course, we even get to see glimpses of his romantic entanglement with the one and only Diana Ross (the stunningly mesmerizing Allison Semmes). The Supremes' lead singer-turned-solo superstar gets almost equal stage time as Gordy, as the show attempts to show a portion of their passionate, sometime contentious, and, ultimately, highly-productive, highly-lucrative relationship.
But, alas, the stories weaved into this musical, in all honesty, only seem to serve as a contextual means to operate the show's non-stop conveyor belt of chart-toppers—some fully staged like stand-alone showstoppers, others, just touched on for a brief moment. Well, that seems like a fair compromise: after all, how else would the show be able to give due diligence to more than 60 hits, plus three original songs penned especially for the musical... all within its running time?
Right out of the gate, MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL bursts with a musical explosion, and hardly slows down, as we observe some of Motown's reunited supergroups in rehearsal at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium for the taping of Motown's 25th Anniversary TV special. Across town, Gordy appears troubled. Soon various underlings, including producer Suzanne de Passe (Krisha Marcano), try to convince him to leave his office and make an appearance at the taping of the TV show honoring his legacy. Gordy refuses.
In flashback, the story transports the audience back into Gordy's past—first as a child fascinated by adults enjoying music, then later, as he brazenly forms his record company, with some cheerful support from his velvet-voiced best bud Smokey. His primary aims: to nurture every aspect of his artists—from their songs and their choreography, to their costumes and venues; and, most importantly, to force his talented stable of African American artists to break into white radio playlists, instead of just relegating their songs under the same derogatory label of "race music." The success certainly wasn't overnight (well, almost), but its long-lasting impressions are still, obviously, quite profound.
As the musical moves forward, we are treated to a rapid-fire succession of Motown hits, from their early groups' songs including "Shop Around," "I Can't Get Next To You," "Please, Mr. Postman," to "My Girl," "I Can't Help Myself," and "Dancing in the Street." Every conceivable musical entity that came from Motown seems present: Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The O-Jays, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Commodores, and, yep, even Teena Marie!
Along the way, the music Gordy spearheaded became the soundtrack to civil rights struggles, the wars at home and abroad, and the growing fight at home against poverty, inequality, and oppression. Much later, after years of proven success, Gordy must also contend with a new threat: disgruntled artists and writers willing to jump to another label for more lucrative deals. Also developing, lest we forget... the budding romance between svengali Gordy and his gorgeous muse Ross. She's determined to be a star and he's extremely invested in making it happen.
This careful attention given to Gordy and Ross' romantic and business relationships certainly gives the show a little narrative heft, but, again, in MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL, it's really, truly all about the music, baby. Highlights include Gaye's piercingly heartfelt "What's Going On" that closes the first act, the joyfully romantic "You're All I Need To Get By" duet between Gordy and Ross, the recreation of the rousing "ABC" and later the touching "I'll Be There" both by the Jackson 5, and, yes, a good ol' sing-along that had Semmes (as Ross in full Vegas-y goodness) going into the audience and pulling some random person to sing with her.
Throughout the concert—er, I mean musical, the show does not allow for one single musical lull. I mean, the show is so lively that even the sets and projections feel like they're doing choreography! Among the many things the show accomplishes successfully, MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL in particular gets the nostalgia exactly right, framing each number with recognizable, era-appropriate aspects about the artists singing each song. If anything else, this stage musical is one exceptional impersonator showcase, a hundred notches better than anything you'd see in a Vegas showroom. Aside from Muse's Gaye, Nager's adorable Smokey, and Semmes' stunning turn as Ms. Ross, other notable standouts include Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves (sang!), Elijah Ahmad Lewis as Stevie Wonder, and Doug Storm as a comically exaggerated Ed Sullivan.
Overall, MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL is a fun and frivolous party that you will no doubt love—at least for its undeniable musicality delivered by this incredible, top-tier cast of quintuple-threats. Despite a few groan-inducing pieces of dialogue that feel like they've been dispensed from fortune cookies (sample line: "Competition breeds champions!"), the show is a thrilling trip down memory lane filled with one showstopping number after another (Although, seeing Gordy gamely dance with the cast during the Opening Night curtain call/encore certainly solidified my enjoyment of the show).
I mean c'mon... how can you not enjoy a night of these amazing hits?
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photos from MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL National Tour by Joan Marcus.
Performances of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL at the Pantages Theatre continue through June 7, 2015 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.