Legit Review: 'Motown'

Broadway's new jukebox musical is a mess, but with these songs, most audiences won't care

The Broadway faithful (at least, the part that covers the Baby Boomer demographic ranging from “mature” to “doddering”) will have its mantra ready when cooler heads point out that “Motown: the Musical” is a hot mess. Should anyone note that Berry Gordy’s kissy-face tribute to himself has no shape, depth, thematic point or dramatic continuity, the proper aud response should be: “We don’t care!” And why should any nostalgic music-hound care, when this jubilant jukebox musical comes loaded with great singers, tons of energy, and dozens of classic Motown roof-raisers?

Everything about this show is big and brash and in your face, from the reputed $17 million price tag to the 36-member cast, the 20 guys in the pit, and the 60 (or is it 600?) songs from the Legendary Motown Catalog, as it is properly billed in the program. (And you gotta love the chutzpah marketing coup the producers pulled off by scoring a ride to the theater — “imported from Detroit,” as it were — in a showy Chrysler ad.)

The scribe and his traffic-cop director, Charles Randolph-Wright (along with “script consultants” David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan), have tried to organize all these moving parts around the final dress for the big blowout held in 1983 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Motown Records. As the Four Tops square off (with “I Can’t Help Myself / Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch”) against the Temptations (“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”) in a classic battle of the clans — and with Diana and Michael and Stevie and a bevy of other superstars waiting in the wings for their cues — the event organizers are panicked because the man behind the Motown miracle refuses to show up for his own party.

Berry Gordy (take your bow, Brandon Victor Dixon, but don’t overdo it), meanwhile, is home in L.A., framed by his gold and platinum records and brooding at the injustice of it all, that this tribute should come  from the “family” of musicians he discovered, but who deserted him for the big labels once they became famous and wanted to make real money.

In this bitterly reflective mood, Gordy recalls the beginning of “the dream,” on the memorable day in 1938 when Joe Louis became the first black heavyweight champ and fired his own ambitions. That’s the signal for David Korins’ set (with an assist from Daniel Brodie’s projections) to do its clunky job of transporting Gordy to a series of clumsy book scenes that show Gordy in the most saintly light possible while recounting both the triumphs and setbacks of building Motown Records. (The name, by the way, comes to him in a blush of inspiration as he searches for “something that captures our roots, like The Motor City, but it feels more like a town to me … Motortown … Motortown … Motown.”)

But there’s no need to dwell on these embarrassing exposition scenes, since nobody really cares how all those lawsuits and countersuits came out in the end. This crowd just wants to watch immortals like Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown), Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark) and Jackie Wilson (Eric LaJuan Summers) come sliding onstage in their shiny suits and slick cummerbunds (Esosa gets a golden needle for those costumes) and rock the house. Not to mention grand ladies like Gladys Knight (Marva Hicks, a divinity in her own right), Mary Wells (N’Kenge), and Martha Reeves (Saycon Sengbloh). Or little Raymond Luke, Jr., who does an amazing Michael Jackson.

The less said about the acting the better. (Diana Ross could sue for defamation for Valisia LeKae’s grisly rendering of her.) But there are some great, big, glorious voices in this show, LeKae’s among them, so it doesn’t seem fair to condemn good singers for being lousy actors.

The real crime, though, is how frequently the singers and their songs are badly served. Some of the lead-ins to the individual numbers are truly atrocious — the most egregious being the case of erectile dysfunction that for some reason inspires Diana Ross to serenade Berry Gordy with “I Hear a Symphony.”  But even when someone knocks a song out of the park, they’re manhandled by Ethan Popp’s arrangements, which tend to chop off a song at the end and leave it bleeding into the next number. Somebody around here should know that Broadway does buttons, not fadeouts. And honestly, people, one simply does not cut off Mary Wells.

Motown 

(Lunt-Fontanne Theater; 1,507 seats; $147 top)

A Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris and Berry Gordy presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Berry Gordy, based on the book “To Be Loved: the Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown” by Berry Gordy, music and lyrics from the Motown catalog, by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Choreography, Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams. Music director & conductor, Joseph Joubert; music coordinator, Michael Keller; music supervision & arrangements, Ethan Popp; dance music arrangements, Zane Mark; orchestrations, Popp & Bryan Crook. Sets, David Korins; costumes, Esosa; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Peter Hylenski; projections, Daniel Brodie; hair & wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; production stage manager, Julia P. Jones. Opened April 14, 2013. Reviewed April 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: Brandon Victor Dixon, Valisia LeKae, Charl Brown, Bryan Terrell Clark, Raymond Luke Jr., Timothy J. Alex, Michael Arnold, Nicholas Christopher, Rebecca E. Covington, Ariana DeBose, Andrea Dora, Wilkie Ferguson III, Marva Hicks, Tiffany Janene Howard, Sasha Hutchings, Jawan M. Jackson, Morgan James, John Jellison, Grasan Kingsberry, Marielys Molina, Sydney Morton, Maurice Murphy, Jesse Nager, Milton Craig Nealy, N’Kenge, Dominic Nolfi, Saycon Sengbloh, Ryan Shaw, Jamal Story, Eric LaJuan Summers, Ephraim M. Sykes, Julius Thomas III, Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber Jr.

A Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris and Berry Gordy presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Berry Gordy, based on the book “To Be Loved: the Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown” by Berry Gordy, music and lyrics from the Motown catalog, by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Choreography, Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams. Music director & conductor, Joseph Joubert; music coordinator, Michael Keller; music supervision & arrangements, Ethan Popp; dance music arrangements, Zane Mark; orchestrations, Popp & Bryan Crook. Sets, David Korins; costumes, Esosa; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Peter Hylenski; projections, Daniel Brodie; hair & wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; production stage manager, Julia P. Jones. Opened April 14, 2013. Reviewed April 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.
Cast: Brandon Victor Dixon, Valisia LeKae, Charl Brown, Bryan Terrell Clark, Raymond Luke Jr., Timothy J. Alex, Michael Arnold, Nicholas Christopher, Rebecca E. Covington, Ariana DeBose, Andrea Dora, Wilkie Ferguson III, Marva Hicks, Tiffany Janene Howard, Sasha Hutchings, Jawan M. Jackson, Morgan James, John Jellison, Grasan Kingsberry, Marielys Molina, Sydney Morton, Maurice Murphy, Jesse Nager, Milton Craig Nealy, N’Kenge, Dominic Nolfi, Saycon Sengbloh, Ryan Shaw, Jamal Story, Eric LaJuan Summers, Ephraim M. Sykes, Julius Thomas III, Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber Jr.

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