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Motown: The Musical
At the beginning of Motown: The Musical the entire company is gathered on the stage of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. It is 1983 and many of the recording stars who got their first break and achieved success through the promotional and marketing efforts of Motown Records beginning in the 1950s are there to celebrate the company's 25th anniversary.
For a while it looks as if Berry Gordy, the multi-talented founder of Motown, is not going to make an appearance at this all-star reunion because he's doesn't feel appreciated or worse. If you've seen the dozens of movies where a similar scene occurs, it won't exactly be a spoiler alert to say that at the end of the musical he makes his well-calculated, if dramatically delayed, appearance. And everyone who was ever mad at him is suddenly glad with him and everyone sings.
Among those with whom we should be most glad to celebrate, however, is this musical's director Charles Randolph Wright who has brilliantly channeled all the resources afforded him in this music-driven but unfortunately book-burdened musical. Wright, a multi-talented theater artist and playwright (Blue), has shaped Motown's collection of real-life memories and theatrical cliches into an edifying entertainment. But Berry Gordy has ill-advisedly authored this musical based on his published memoire To Be Love, The Music, the Magic, The Memories of Motown.
Although Gordy is also credited as a producer, Motown: The Musical doesn't come off as a vanity production since its impressive assemblage of performers happily overshadows the then-I-did-then-I wrote-then-I-discovered chronicle. Gordy is impressively portrayed in the filtered light of the author's self-serving vision by Brandon Victor Dixon. Be that as it may, the tangential familial memories, his marriage, the conflicts with his stars within the record industry and the law suits that come with the territory are anchored weightlessly to a musical that works its magic as a humdinger of a revue.
The 'book reveals no eye-opening or ear-pricking insights into Gordy's dealings with his real family or recording family — except perhaps for Diana Ross of the Supremes (a sensational performance by Valisia LeKae). It is his discovery and guidance of the Supremes and lead singer Ross that is the most developed portion of the book, but it too falls short of anything that could be called revelatory or moving. The Gordy-Ross relationship gives us the clearest hook through which we see the dedication of this formidable entrepreneur, in particular developing the persona of the young trio of girls into The Supremes.
Lekae, in a collection of stunning gowns by Esosa) gives the most dramatically exciting performance in the show. She has some terrific close-to show-stopping musical numbers including "I Hear a Symphony," "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" and "You're All I Need to Get By," a duet with Ross and Gordy. Kudos to Esosa for defining the decades with acres of wittily fashioned attire.
To get the plot moving, we are transported back to 1938, the Gordy home in Detroit where the young Berry (the astonishingly talented Raymond Luke, Jr. (who also plays the young Stevie Wonder and young Michael Jackson) wants to grow up to be Joe Louis but then more fortuitously catches the music bug watching the dancing ("Black Like Me") in his neighborhood. The choreography by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams energetically and bracingly captures the flavor of the 1930s as it does all the subsequent eras.
It's in 1957 Detroit where Gordy is impelled to start his own record label and fearlessly challenge the white power brokers of the record industry. We see him begin life-long friendships with Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark) and Smoky Robinson (Charl Brown) who reappear frequently to reflect their rise to fame and fortune and their affection for Gordy.
Sometimes the fast-moving musical numbers with many songs truncated, appear as fleeting as the history that is embedded, like flash cards to recall the racial segregation, the rioting, the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John Kennedy.
Also in state of motion are the colorful modernist settings by designer David Korins that expand and contract, rise and fall as fluid, dimensional graphics. Amid the waves of scenery shifting and a passing parade of history are interspersed some really wonderful music moments that brought cheers from the audience with whom I saw the show.
Cheers greeted the appearances of Stevie Wonder (Ryan Shaw) and such various boy and girl groups as The Supremes ("Buttered Popcorn" "Where Did Our Love Go"), The Miracles ("Shop Around") The Marvelettes ("Please Mr. Postman"), Mary Wells and The Tempations ("By By Baby"/"Two Lovers Medley"), Martha Reeves and the Vandellas ("Dancing in the Street"), The Contours ("Do You Love Me"), plus many others doing bits of their hits among the show's sixty-or-so songs. Unfortunately the program does not identify each song with its performer.
A standout among the groups is The Jackson Five featuring a whirling Michael Jackson, as splendidly played by Luke, Jr. at the performance I saw. A short backstage scene after The Supremes have performed "Stop in the Name of Love" on the stiff-necked Ed Sullivan's (a perfect impersonation by John Jellison) TV show is very funny. on the stiff-necked Ed Sullilvan (a perfect impersonation by John Jellison) is very funny.
Despite its rambling dramatic arc, Motown: The Musical has what it takes in the way of great music that is certain to bring back memories for many of the decades as well being a reminder of how apropos was the nickname given to Motown's first headquarters — Hitsville, U.S.A.
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