Review: 'Motown: The Musical' National Tour

Review: 'Motown: The Musical' National Tour

John Garcia

Motown: The Musical (MTM) is from that never ending conveyor belt of jukebox musicals that keeps churning them out like a factory onto Broadway. Only a few jukebox musicals have achieved that rare feat of becoming both an artistic and financial success. Some receive critical approval, but lackluster box office. Or they hit the mother load with the money pouring in, but the critics rake them over the coals. This genre of musical theater definitely does produce heated discussions whether they are truly “original” musicals or not. They do have their fair share of supporters and detractors. 

MTM premiered on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in April 2013, where it was met with lukewarm critical response from the New York press. The musical itself is stuffed with over 50 songs from Motown’s illustrious canon of Platinum and Gold hits. MTM was a modest hit with 738 performances before closing in January 2015. But it did receive four Tony nominations, but not for best musical. There is still talk of the show to head across the ocean to the West End in 2016. There are also rumors circulating around the Rialto that the musical will return back to Broadway next year.

The musical’s book is based on Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography- To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, and the Memories of Motown. It is Gordy in fact who penned the musical’s book. If you know your R&B history, then you know that Gordy was the creator, founder, and the master mind behind Hitsville U.S.A., a title that Motown was crowned with due to its unparalleled success in churning out hit after hit from some of the greatest artists of Soul, Pop, Rhythm and Blues. Motown also discovered their very own unique sound that no other record company could duplicate. This musical uses for its majority of its score a plethora of Motown’s classic hits. The birth for its name came from their hometown, Detroit; back in 1959 that city was the mecca for car manufacturing. Thus Gordy put Motor and Town together to create his record company’s name, Motown. Gordy’s record company signed onto its roster a pantheon of some of the greatest artists of music: Diana Ross & the Supremes, Michael Jackson & the Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, the commodores, Rick James, and on and on.

AT&T Performing Arts Center has brought to the Winspear Opera House this jukebox musical’s national tour to begin its run here on Wednesday evening and running through August 16.

If there is one major element that can make a jukebox musical work with the use of published, well known songs is how to make them fit into a cohesive story with finely defined, fleshed out characters that possess a believable arc both in subtext and emotion. The music has to fit smoothly and with conviction into the book so that the audience will “think” that these well-known songs were actually composed for that particular musical. Unfortunately Motown’s book is like Donald Trump’s hair, stiff and paper thin. You get a sense that Gordy and his production team tried with all their might to shove as many songs from the Motown catalogue into the prosaic book. Characters appear oh so briefly on stage and then vanish, or they make cameos then disappear in a split second for the reminder of the night. Many of the songs are done in concert form. They are sung in the recording studio, at auditions, concerts, TV shows, and so on. Many of the songs are not sung from beginning to end. Instead we get a verse or two, or just a hint of the chorus of a song, and that’s it. While the songs are legendary, many simply do not fit into the confines within the muted book. To create dramatic structure Gordy brings in racial conflicts and the Vietnam War. Yes, they are moving to see unfold onstage, but by desperately trying to connect these issues to Motown’s history making chart hits, it creates a clunky, cluttered, and pabulum book.

To make matters worse, Gordy sugar coats his personal life avoiding some major issues within his musical book. He had three marriages and eight children. He was actually still married when he had the affair with Diana Ross. There is no mention of his mistresses or girlfriends. From all these relationships he bore children. The public did not officially know that Ross’s daughter Rhonda is Gordy’s own daughter till years later.

It is Motown legend the artistic wars that Gordy had with his stars and composers. They could not handle his Machiavellian power over their music, art, image, and careers while under contract. Many books have been written about this. I still vividly remember when the Jacksons and Ross left Motown. The press was all over that. While it is brought up in the in the stage version, it feels like an afterthought, not completely fleshed out. Gordy’s book fails to truly capture the very public and ugly battles between himself and his megastars.

On stage there are a couple of scenes regarding Gordy’s masterminding and creating a film career for his muse Diana Ross. There are a couple of brief scenes dealing with the film Lady Sings the Blues, a film about Billie Holiday, which earned Ross her only Oscar nomination (she lost the statuette to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret). But Gordy’s stage book never mentions the mega flop The Wiz. This was a $24 million dollar film based on the hit musical that flopped loudly at the box office. Many could not believe that Gordy and director Sidney Lumet thought that Ross could actually play Dorothy (she was in her mid-30s when the film was made). In fact Ross fought hard to play the role. Gordy and Universal Pictures lost a ton of money producing the film. 

Gordy’s stage book also quickly rushes over the firing of Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes. The musical Dreamgirls (which everyone knows is about Ross, the Supremes, and Barry Gordy) used this to great dramatic effect in the role of Effie White (AKA Florence Ballard). In the Motown musical Gordy’s book rapidly passes through this dramatic firing. I so was hoping the stage musical would go into much fuller detail to see Gordy’s personal point of view regarding Ballard and her being fired. Ballard actually sued Gordy and Motown (and won). Gordy should have written a scene involving Ballard’s firing, and then give her a song from the Motown canon to sing regarding her dramatic departure. 

The musical begins and ends with the infamous Motown 25th Anniversary TV special. Many of Motown’s illustrious roster of stars appeared on the telecast. It also reunited the Jacksons. By that time Michael Jackson had left his brothers and was now a solo artist who achieved mega success with his albums Off the Wall and Thriller. It has been heavily documented that Michael wanted no part of the TV special. But his parents, brothers, and others were pushing him hard to appear on the telecast. He agreed on one condition, in that he would be allowed to sing alone on stage one his current hits from Thriller. Mind you, he recorded these two solo albums without Gordy and on the Epic label. After much heated debate, it was agreed. And all that everyone can remember from that telecast is Jackson’s legendary performance of “Billie Jean” and showing the world for the first time his moonwalk dance. So it was quite puzzling and perplexing that at the end of the stage musical, there are no Jacksons and no adult Michael Jackson in his black sequined jacket and white rhinestone glove appearing with the rest of the stars on the telecast finale with everyone singing together.

All of these dramatic artistic moments of Gordy’s battles should have been fully explored within the book for his stage musical. To make the emotion have an authentic arc, you had to show warts and all, the good and bad of Gordy’s professional and personal life to truly work here.

What does make the musical work is the music. It is an incredible, dazzling, and wondrous trip down memory lane when so many of Motown’s biggest hits are sung on stage. Every number was met with ear splitting thunderous applause, whistles, and screams from Wednesday’s audience. You just savor all that fantastic music from so many of Motown’s artists that made them legendary hits. Song and song it was like a banquet table buckling under the weight of all those mega hits. You just couldn’t get enough of them. That is what makes this musical so spectacular and heart pumping thrilling, is the music.

This national tour is loaded with some of the most lavish, soulful, and vocally powerful singing that had ever graced the Winspear stage. These magnificent vocals ebb from the artists on stage into the audience. It was hair raising, bone chilling vocal finesse. The vocal riffs, the roaring of belting with such force, the lush harmonies-it was singing like you’ve never heard before. Every single person, from ensemble to leads, had superlative vocals that just had you screaming and applauding like crazy from your seat! Combining their singing with the fantastic choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams made for sheer musical theater heaven.

The ensemble is overflowing with electrifying talent. They sing, harmonize, and pull out all the stops in bringing those classic hits to life. They portray a plethora of various characters with strong conviction, always staying in the moment. Song after song, they sell these golden hits like superstars.

Josh Tower provides a sublime performance as Berry Gordy. He commands the stage just like Gordy did with his Motown Empire. His chemistry with Allison Semmes as Diana Ross oozes sexual heat and passion. Tower’s energy never wans and his stage presence beams brightly on stage. He has several solos throughout the evening, but his real shining moment vocally is his last big solo in Act II. As the song changes keys and goes higher and with more belt, Tower effortlessly glides through the song with the vocal power of a majestic lion. 

I saw Diana Ross live on stage back in San Antonio Texas in the 1980s. A concert where she changed gown after gown, each one beaded in ways that would make Liberace green with jealousy. And each gown came with a humongous floor length coat made with yards of tulle and chiffon, covered in jewels. So in MTM, it was really a touching and exciting treat when Allison Semmes as Diana Ross recreates her concert scene singing her famous hit, “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand”. She did exactly what Ross did with the song. Ross (Aka Semmes) goes out into the audience and picks several people to sing the chorus. She then tells the audience to reach for your neighbor’s hands lift them up and sway them high in the air singing along with her. I still so vividly recall that moment at Ross’s concert. Semmes recreates that concert sequence beautifully. Semmes has clearly done her homework in studying Ross. She nailed down the soft voice (speaking and singing) and Ross’s mannerisms. She maneuvered her massive red, multi-tiered tulle cape just like Ross did. She achieved loud laughs when she did the hair tossing gesture that Ross actually does in real life on stage. Vocally Semmes did a flawless job singing many of Ross’s big hits, both with the Supremes and later on in her solo career. She even physically resembles Ross. Semmes delivers a tour de force performance as Miss Ross.

Jesse Nager nails Smokey Robinson’s speaking voice. That soft, raspy, slightly high pitched voice that we all have heard from Robinson Nager recreates to eerie perfection. With bouncing off the walls energy, Nager gives a crowd pleasing performance as one of Motown’s biggest stars. Vocally his shimmering tenor vocals glisten within Robinson’s many hits. Nager also adds many of the biggest laughs within the production with his comedic chops.

As Marvin Gaye, Jarran Muse delivers a raw, masculine, and extraordinary performance as the soul legend who gave us so many great hits. Muse has a stunning singing voice that just astounds you. In one song he sings acapella with vocal riffs that were just unbelievable! Throughout this song the audience kept applauding and cheering over and over again as he sang. That’s how magical Muse is. When Gaye and Gordy have a heated fight over Gaye leaving Motown, Gordy shouts that he treated Gaye like a son. Gaye screams back he has a father already. Those lines do bring a sharp pain in your heart. For as we all know that Gaye was shot and killed by his own father years later. Muse delivers a peerless performance.

San Antonio native Nathaniel Cullors steals the show from the adults as young Michael Jackson. This kid can sing, no I mean the kid CAN SING! My god I don’t think I’ve heard a young boy sing with such voracious vocals. His high golden tenor voice soars into the rafters and he belts like a tornado hitting the audience. The stage production incredibly recreates Michael and his brothers’ legendary TV appearance on the Hollywood Palace special that Diana Ross hosted. From the set to the costumes, it was perfectly recreated. Cullors sang Michael’s solos that truly reminded you of the future king of Pop. I’m sure many felt like I did watching Cullors performance. It made you think of the real Michael Jackson. Now knowing Michael’s painful childhood, his father’s beatings, the loss of being a normal boy, and his tragic death, you feel the loss of Jackson and his talents as this tiny tyke brings him back to life on stage. Cullors has no hint of stiff, childlike acting. Instead his acting craft and technique is honest and constantly in the moment. He is phenomenal.

There are so many great performances from the cast, but we must give a standing ovation to Martina Sykes as Mary Wells. She has powerhouse vocals that had the audience awarding her with deafening applause. She is utterly magical as Wells. Also kudos to Doug Storm. He achieves hearty laughs as the redneck cop doing crowd control at a Motown concert held in a Southern state. Storm’s walk across the stage yelling at the crowd was hysterical. Later on he again generates rip roaring laughter as Ed Sullivan. He magically transforms his face to resemble the legendary TV host, right down to his posture and walk!

As for the production elements, well they are AMAZING! 

David Korins’ scenic design meshed gorgeously with Daniel Brodie’s projection design. The book goes through history at a fast, neck breaking speed. We jump years and eras in a flick of a second. Thankfully Korins and Brodie aides the audience immensely with their designs to let us know where we are. 

Korins recreates several key set pieces that are exact replicas of the originals. Such as the centerpiece for the Motown 25th Anniversary telecast, the Jacksons TV debut, and so on. The set pieces are finely adorned with props and detailed in design finesse. Such as Gordy’s Los Angeles home as well as his family home back in Detroit. Korins created long strips of beams that stretch across the stage or go high into the fly rail. These beams move all evening long to create the various locations. I did miss however not seeing the backdrop of streams of crystals that was used for Diana Ross’s solo concert scene that the Broadway version had. There is also this very detailed 3-D set piece that resembles a row of homes in Detroit, they curve and float far upstage. This is not a painted backdrop, but an actual built set piece designed with eye popping results. 

Daniel Brodie’s exquisite projection design is used with stellar success here. He projects his videos and images not only onto the two massive projection walls placed directly center stage (which move all evening long), but also the side panels and even the beams that Korins has designed. Brodie uses these beams to project time periods and locations to let the audience know where we are within the story. The projections are mind-boggling! Brodie beams out video images of everything, from the 60s psychedelic swirl of colors and images to the 70s cartoonish/disco era. He also created a series of vignettes containing some of our nation’s darker periods, such as Vietnam, the deaths of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the uproar of racial tension, and so on. His projections for the concert scenes also add so much to the scenic design, such as Diana Ross’s solo debut. For the finale he projects a montage of the actual album covers of Motown’s musical history of hits.

Costume design for this musical was done by Esosa. All of us who are Project Runway fans know him as Emilio Sosa, who placed second in Season 7 and on Season 2 of Project Runway All Stars he made to the finale, but sadly did not win. His costume design for MTM are works of pop art. He studied intensely not only the time periods, but also what the artists actually wore in several iconic concerts/TV appearances. He designs an array of dazzling tuxedos for the various male groups with satins of various colors. From bright yellow to midnight blue to shimmery silver. Of course his best work is for the Supremes and Diana Ross. When they are in Paris, Esosa has them in heavily beaded copper hued cocktail costumes. For their debut at the Copa, they are adorned in floor length powder blue gowns dusted with rhinestones. For another concert scene they wear these stunning sequined gowns of golds, blues, and silvers. For Diana Ross he pulls out all the stops. Her gold beaded gown for one scene is gorgeous. Sitting so close I could see the great detail that went into the formation of sequins and stones that Esosa designed within the gown. For Ross’s solo debut he designed a blinding white gown beaded beyond belief! It was pure Diva Ross fabulous! Allison Semmes (as Diana) looked just like her in this incredibly designed gown that must have weighed a ton with all that beading. Her final gown is a masterpiece. A red confection of red encrusted sequins and rhinestones, topped off with a massive billowing tulle cape! You will marvel at the artistry created by Esosa’s costume design in this musical.

One of my all-time favorite lighting designers is back-Natasha Katz! I swear this lighting designer can do no wrong! She is the lighting designer for the current critically acclaimed hit An American in Paris that I just saw on Broadway in May. Katz received this year’s Tony Award for Best Lighting design for An American in Paris-and rightfully deserved it! She first made me a fan of her work when I saw the original Broadway production of Elton John’s Aida, which earned Katz her first Tony Award. Once again she brings her prodigious lighting design to impeccable life in MTM. She uses everything that is available in the latest in lighting technology at her fingertips for her creations of light. Her color palette is rich and lush. There are gobos, ions of piercing light and specific spears of light to enhance a musical number. Observe what she designed for Berry Gordy’s final big solo, the lighting design is just so detailed for this number. The concert scenes she bathes the sets and actors in pure showmanship razzle dazzle! My coined term of “emotional lighting” she uses with first rate success here. Several ballads and full out company numbers have the emotion pumped up even higher thanks to Katz’s unrivaled lighting creations.

Overall the only major flaw here is the somber, prosaic book. Unfortunately this book is a prime example of why some lovers of musical theater hate about the jukebox musical. It is difficult to take many of Motown’s biggest hits to fit into the pedestrian book. Try as he might, Gordy alas could not create an emotional, organic, unbreakable, dramatic thread connecting book with song. 

So forget about that! What makes Motown the Musical so intoxicating is the music, the unprecedented vocals of this cast, and its exceptional production design of set, light, and costume. 

At Wednesday’s press night performance the audience went into a frenzy of shrieking screams of applause and whistles. I have not attended a national tour that received that kind of response not only after EVERY musical number, but DURING the number itself! I found myself swaying away, moving my head, and just enjoy all that great Motown music sung by this sensational, miraculous, and stupendous cast! This alone is the very reason why you need to see this production! You will not hear a cast sing like this using one of the greatest catalogues of music ever created!

AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House
Through August 16, 2015

Center Members get first access to the best available tickets. Call Membership Services at 214-978-2888 or go to Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased online at, by phone at 214-880-0202 or in person at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Information Center at 2353 Flora Street (Monday 10am–6pm; Tuesday thru Saturday 10am–9pm; Sunday 10am–6pm). Theater located at 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201. Ticket info:

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