×

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Legit Review: 'Motown'

More Legit

  • Grand Horizons review

    'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the [...]

  • Uncle Vanya review

    'Uncle Vanya': Theater Review

    Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning [...]

  • The Welkin review

    'The Welkin': Theater Review

    A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content