Here’s a test you can take to help determine whether shelling out $150-plus for the Motown musical is for you. Head on over to YouTube, and find the Jackson Five singing “Who’s Loving You” on The Ed Sullivan Show. As he patters before the song kicks in, savor young Michael’s vest, hat, and innocent charisma. Then feel yourself go agog when he tears into the song, that voice free and impossible, bubbling out like champagne just uncorked yet still urgent with that longing that distinguishes great soul singing, a voice shaped by the church and the pop charts, by the hurt and the hope that stamps the black American experience.
And then, after just one verse, as your brain’s pleasure centers send off fireworks, find it within yourself to cut the song off. Hit pause, and imagine you’re now watching something only the producers of Motown could consider more important: a scene of Berry Gordy taking a phone call from his lawyer.
The big-ticket show of choice for people eager to enjoy elaborate re-creations of the performance of the late 20th century’s greatest pop hits, but only for a verse or so at a time, Motown is in the business of reminding audiences of what they already like about Motown—but never of pinning down what exactly made those records so great in the first place. We rarely get a specific, singular performance of any of these songs; instead, we get our most fleeting memories of them.
The chief dramatic interest is not, as seems intended, “Will Berry Gordy succeed in his dreams of becoming the Henry Ford of for-all-races hitmaking?” or “Will his desire to make Diana Ross a star conflict with his desire for Diana Ross?” Instead, it’s “Will this show ever find a shape and flight?” and maybe “Whose idea was it to have Berry Gordy sing more than Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Martha Reeves put together?” Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy is marvelous, belting out Motown classics (and a couple of new showtunes) in his regular, non-performative life as he builds Hitsville, USA, from nothing in a rented Detroit home.
The real Gordy is credited with the book, and the show has a revisionist agenda that should enliven its workaday scenes of record-label management: redressing the accusations that Gordy overworked and cheated the performers he trained from Detroit kids into pop stars. But everything is so rushed there’s never any suggestion of what his hands-on approach was actually like. We don’t even see how the hit factory works. There are two scenes of him telling high-schooler Ross (Valisa LeKae) she’s too young to be signed; then, the next time we see her, the Supremes are decked out in their shimmery dresses on the Motown package tour. Toward the end, when the ’70s dawn and his artists are leaving for bigger deals at the major labels, there’s nothing to indicate whether Gordy has true cause to feel spurned. The character’s only traits are his noble ambitions for himself and his race, and his love for Ross.
What we hear of the songs is excellent. I especially relished Michael Arnold as Jackie Wilson, early on, and the Contours’ Billy Gordon. N’Kenge’s entrance as a stage-hogging Mary Wells is one of the show’s few moments of raw performance, as is Bryan Terrell Clark, as Marvin Gaye, offering a prayerful a capella “Mercy Mercy Me.” It’s also somewhat diverting to spot chorus-boy Temptations and Four Tops as Jacksons, Miracles, Contours, Commodores, and Pips.
Late in the show, the Jackson 5 return, this time singing “I Want You Back” for a verse and a chorus, then “ABC” for just as long, and then “The Love You Save,” which, really, nobody was asking for. The medley is all about how many songs can be crammed in rather than what these performers could do with any one of them. Raymond Luke, the Michael Jackson here, never gets the chance to capture the real Jackson’s thrilling late-in-the-song shouts and improvisations, which at some point in your life you’ve imitated into a hairbrush. Maybe he does the same backstage.
Just across the street at the Richard Rodgers another revisionist ’60s pop-music extravaganza has plumed up, this time a two-hour original-band concert performance from the Rascals, a clutch of nice-enough Garden State rock-and-rollers out to prove that they coulda/shoulda been ranked among the all-time greats. Their best songs are persuasive, especially that great soul cover you no-doubt could shout along with, “Good Lovin’.” Hearing Gene Cornish’s still-fleet guitarwork on that one, ranging from easy jangle to toothy power chords, is a joy beyond nostalgia—it’s a reminder of why we have guitar-rock covers of soul songs in the first place.
Still, this is a show for the fans, who haven’t had the chance to see these guys perform together since 1970. It’s polished up for Broadway, tricked out with the mating-jellyfish bio-swirls of a ’60s light show and video interludes of the band telling their story—lots of “And then I met [INSERT NAME OF RASCAL HERE].”
If you’re not already steeped in Rascalania, the now-sixtyish performers’ energy and chops might win you over, as might hits like “Groovin’” and “Beautiful Morning.” For me, the late, long psychedelic numbers ground on, leaving time to contemplate what exactly separated the British Invasion acts from our Jersey boys, these guys and Frankie Valli and his Four Seasons. Was it just better management? A taste for au courant abstraction fostered by London’s art schools? Being part of a swinging scene that was inspiring manias rather than a swooning nation that was succumbing to them? Whatever the problem was, Felix Cavaliere still kills as a soul singer, and Dino Danelli—well, goddamn, the drummer is undiminished.
Less certain is the show’s insistence that we need the Rascals, now more than ever. It’s one thing for nostalgia acts to remind us of their own better times; it’s another for them to argue that they might save our own.