By Richard Ades
The curtain rises to reveal facsimiles of old Motown groups singing snippets of their hits. From the beginning, it’s clear that Motown the Musical is all about the music.
It’s only after we’ve been treated to several smartly choreographed numbers that the show introduces to the man around whom it revolves: Berry Gordy Jr. (Chester Gregory), who founded Motown and now is threatening to boycott a 1983 celebration of the record label’s 25th anniversary. Why? Because he holds a grudge against the many artists who abandoned it over the years.
Based on Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, the musical then backs up and begins recounting his long career.
First seen as a young boy growing up in Detroit, Gordy quickly develops into a brash young man who pushes his way into the music business by writing hits for singer Jackie Wilson (Rashad Naylor). But he soon becomes fed up with seeing his songs relegated to the B-sides of lesser efforts, so Gordy founds his own label.
This, however, introduces a whole new problem. Mainstream radio stations refuse to play black music—then known as “race music”—despite Gordy’s assurances that his soul/pop tunes appeal to everyone. His claim is borne out by a Southern concert that attracts a multiracial audience, which police officers struggle to keep segregated into “white” and “colored” sections of the auditorium.
Of the two acts, Act 1 is more interesting due to scenes like this that reflect the tenor of the times. It ends in the 1960s, a decade marked by hopeful activism and soul-rending violence: the Vietnam War, the assassination of a president and a King, and Detroit’s 1967 riot. On a more personal level, it also covers Gordy’s blossoming relationship with Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), lead singer of the Supremes.
Act 2 covers Motown’s move to Los Angeles and Gordy’s determination to turn Ross into a solo artist and a movie star. Inevitably, though, it becomes the story of Gordy and Motown’s gradual decline, which makes it much like every other musical biography.
Along the way, we get a few tidbits of information about Gordy’s relationships with Motown’s various stars. While these are sometimes interesting, the details are sketchy and sometimes are left out entirely—as when Gordy and an aggrieved musical group take each other to court. In such cases, it’s hard to forget that we’re hearing only Gordy’s side of the story.
But whatever the show lacks in narrative depth, it makes up for by allowing us to bask in one Motown hit after another. ABC, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Dancing in the Street: The nostalgic moments just keep on coming.
In the touring show, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and accompanied by Darryl Archibald’s funky band, the songs are delivered with power and grace.
Semmes is great as Ross, seeming to gather strength as the night goes on. Though Gordy is known for promoting music rather than singing it, actor Gregory also comports himself well when he raises his voice in song. Semmes and Gregory’s duet You’re All I Need to Get By is one of the show’s sweetest numbers.
Also prominent are Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson and the fleet-footed J.J. Batteast (alternating with Leon Outlaw Jr.) as a young Michael Jackson. On opening night, Nik Walker filled in for Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and displayed one of the most impressive voices of all.
David Korins’s scenery is spare, relying on Natasha Katz’s lighting to set the scene and mood. Esosa’s costume designs are period-appropriate and properly flashy.
Motown may not be a great musical, but it’s a musical with great music. Whether or not you’re old enough to remember the titular record label’s heyday, you’re sure to have fun.
Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Motown the Musical through Feb. 28 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $33-$113. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.