An air-tight revue with classic songs presented as theatrical set pieces, with a minimum of superficial chatter in between them. That’s not what Motown The Musical is. Instead, the story of how Berry Gordy Jr. created a dazzling black sound that managed to be upbeat, despairing, and socially relevant–with a script written by Gordy himself–aims for a much broader approach.
The 1960s nostalgia romp includes dozens of songs from the Motown canon (by timelessly talented writers like Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson) and a few original tunes, but we don’t just take them in, Smokey Joe’s Cafe-style. They’re strung onto a plot involving Gordy’s reluctance to be part of Motown’s 25th anniversary bash, which allows the opportunity for flashbacks, historic events, concert recreations, shoehorned hits, and lots of slap-happy jokes. The result often comes off like an extended variety show sketch, from the very kind of variety shows depicted in the musical.
The creation and demise of the Supremes–which was the basis of the semi-fictionalized Dreamgirls–is here just one of several threads being pulled together as the “sound of young America” throbs around them. The evening also has to contend with Marvin Gaye’s angst, Stevie Wonder’s mothers demands, Michael Jackson’s exuberance, and all kinds of other artists flitting in and out to sing a tune or cop a ‘tude.
It’s all too much (in fact, the scene where we learn JFK has been assassinated gets an unwanted giggle), but the script moves better in Act Two, with less jokiness getting in the way of the motion. And besides, there’s that music, which is still exciting, whether it be rousingly brassy (“Dancing in the Street”), quirky (“Square Biz”), or just plain sweet (“My Guy”).
The Charles Randolph-Wright-directed production is attractive, and his cast members prove to be worthy interpreters. Gifted Brandon Victor Dixon does his best with the central but shadowy part of Gordy, who basically comes off like a nice guy with a mission. Valisia Lekae captures Diana Ross’s shimmery glamour and ambition. (She’s seen singing “Good Morning Heartache” on a large screen as it’s announced that Liza Minnelli won the Oscar. Before that, Gordy tells her, “You’ve been acting your whole life,” then diplomatically adds, “We all have.”)
Charl Brown is uncanny as Smokey Robinson while Raymond Luke Jr. shines as the young Berry, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson.
By the end, you’ll have been entertained by many of the production numbers, though you might just wonder where the cruiseship buffet is.