By Bill Hirschman
They had me from hello, or at least from the wailing wall of distinctive sound given unprecedented power in the opening bars of Motown the Musical. It erupted like molten lava from the pit at the Broward Center: driving percussion, ripped out bass line, brassy horns, warbling guitars, muscular strings.
Seconds later, beginning with “I Can’t Help Myself,” two groups recreated that rousing Four Tops-Temptations battle of the bands in a medley of a dozen deathless classics. I was hooked.
By the time the entire cast backed up Martha and the Vandellas clones on an expanded “Dancin’ in the Street,” played with a size and power you’ve never heard behind it before, I was bought and paid for. And so was the opening night audience for the national tour.
Although it relies on scores of iconic numbers from the classic R&B catalog, Motown is not meant as a legends tribute concert by impersonators; it’s meant to be a musical theater biography about how Berry Gordy Jr. founded and developed the legendary record company and its unique sound, and how he and a roster of performers changed and charted the transformation of this country through tumultuous decades of the 20th Century. Frankly, that’s the weakest part of the show.
The framing device is the eve of the 25th anniversary concert in 1983 at which almost every one of the company’s stars, including those who deserted him, returned for a triumphant and reaffirming reunion. Then the bulk of the show switches into a single long flashback reaching to Gordy’s childhood when Joe Louis’ victory over Max Schmeling created a hero for a segregated America and a role model for Gordy.
It tracks Gordy’s unshakeable conviction as he borrows money from the family to open Hitsville U.S.A., as he attracts a group of hungry colleagues into a musical assembly line inspired by his days working in the auto factories, as he challenges the color barrier both whites-only radio songlists and segregated performing venues when his stars went on the road.
If the ensuing story comes off as reverential hagiography, the script is not just based on Gordy’s autobiography but ostensibly written by him as well, (although some script consultants are listed). The only warts it acknowledges is that Gordy was an obsessed workaholic and my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, but all in the service of a great vision, you understand.
Whether or not the show means to, Motown does reveal Gordy as a paternalistic and controlling figure (with his artists’ best interests at heart, you understand), but still more sinned against than sinning as virtually every singer and writer he turns into a star other than Smokey Robinson deserts him for dollar-greener pastures.
The script is the weakest facet as it perfunctorily ticks off bullet items on a checklist of highlights of his life, never delving deeper than a single level. It’s also punctuated with dozens of such painfully self-conscious exchanges as when the Jackson Five audition. Someone says, “You know, they could be the biggest group ever.” To which Gordy intones with impossible prescience, “Yeah, but can they handle it?” Ooch. Ouch.
Something’s also uncomfortable mashing up of Motown, a street-based art form proud of its gritty authenticity, and a quintessential middlebrow white bread Broadway fantasy with all the tropes from production numbers to people breaking into song when they can’t contain themselves any longer.
But there’s little delay between the musical segments. There are about 66 numbers, so while it may not hit everyone’s personal favorites, it catches most of them. Many numbers are presented more or less uncut, others have been artfully shaved down and many have been turned into medleys. Many are presented by the groups and artists who sang them, almost all benefiting from a little more oomph in the stage orchestrations than on record or am radio speaker.
In true Broadway fashion, others are melded into the narrative. Some people will flinch at this (using “War” as a dance number for the Vietnam War felt a bit obvious). But others were inventive, such as Gordy and Diana Ross pledging their devotion during a Paris respite with the Ashford-Simpson Gaye-Terrell “You’re All I Need To Get By.”
Others are compelling “stage” presentations such as the scorching “Ball of Confusion” that opens the second act. Or when Diana Ross comes into the audience and drafts a couple of audience members to sing with her “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”
The renditions of these classics are not digital copies. The voices are close to the original but not Memorex. Every once in a while the phasing isn’t laser-perfect, although sometimes the lyrics are more distinct than you have ever heard them before.
Unless you attended concerts at the Apollo Theater or some similar venue, you’ve likely never heard most of these songs with such a fullness and richness and power, certainly not coming from the AM radio speaker in your father’s car or from that black-and-white television. The band led by music director Darryl Archibald, including ten local musicians gathered for the first time that morning, hit the groove from the downbeat and never faltered.
The tour cast is indefatigable as well as talented. Clifton Oliver exudes the joyful confidence that Gordy must radiate throughout the show. He has a strong voice that embraces numerous numbers, but especially the 11o’ clock number that Gordy wrote for this show with Michael Lovesmith, “Can I Close The Door (On Love).” His acting is adequate, although the one-dimensional script doesn’t give him much to work with.
The standout, though, is the slender magnetic Allison Semmes who doesn’t look much like Diana Ross (no one in the cast looks much like their real-life character) but she just blazes through the show with a melded doppelganger of Ross’ sound and charisma, but also with a flavor of Semmes’ own voice.
In 2009, I wrote in a review, “The incandescence named Allison Semmes is currently electrifying Broward Stage Door Theatre’s resurrection of the Harlem Renaissance jukebox musical Bubbling Brown Sugar… Even in a cast of 16, however, she stands out with a polished Broadway voice, toothpaste-ad grin, flashing eyes and amped-up flair that’s evident in her angular body language and vivacious delivery.” Nothing has changed in her current role.
When she, Krisha Marcano and Trisha Jeffrey launch into “Stop, In the Name of Love” or any of the other essentials with a milky smoothness, someone must have hooked up the seats in the auditorium to a car battery.
Jesse Nagar makes a fine Smokey Robinson although he really doesn’t look a thing like Smokey. The crowd favorite is Leon Outlaw Jr. (alternating with Reed L. Shannon) as Little Stevie Wonder and then Michael Jackson whose Jackson Five medley is a veritable time machine.
But special note is due Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye. While most people want to get on their feet for the big power numbers, its Muse’s heartfelt rendition of “What’s Going On” and especially an a cappella version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” that are the most moving moments of the show.
As you’d expect, the choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams is a hip-swinging, full-spin recreation of every move you ever saw on American Bandstand and Soul Train.
And the costumes were hundreds of painfully period perfect wardrobe including delightfully outlandishly items that will have audience members wincing at the thought that such an outfit is still in the back of their closet.
It’s not a perfect Broadway show by any means; it actually feels a tad long and even overstuffed despite the propulsive never-flagging pacing from director Charles Randolph-Wright.
But when the entire cast joins in with Diana Ross for the overwhelming curtain closer (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” naturally), the audience is compelled to join the celebration.
Motown the Musical runs Feb. 24-March 8 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale series, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets approximately $34.75 – $153. Running time 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission. For more information, call 954-462-0222 or visit BrowardCenter.org.