MOTOWN THE MUSICAL Moves Mountains
Even before the curtain emblazoned with a big ‘M’ rises, there is an infectious energy among the audience members all ready to be transported back to a time when an independent music company literally changed the historical course of this country. Motown the Musical became an instant hit when it on Broadway last year, and thanks to Broadway In Chicago along with producer Kevin McCollum, the national tour launched last night at a packed Oriental Theatre to a ten minute standing ovation, with its founder Berry Gordy and best friend Smokey Robinson in attendance.
Motown The Musical, which is based on Gordy’s memoirs, contains over fifty songs (most truncated for plot point) showing the rise and fall of the Detroit record label that launched the careers of Mr. Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Temptations and The Supremes, just name a few. As the artists became superstars and their songs worldwide hits, Motown’s talent was soon faced with offers from larger labels offering them millions of dollars and greater artistic freedom. The more Gordy tried to keep control over his domain, the greater alienated he became from his artists and the financial doom that finally befell the label.
However, because Mr. Gordy also wrote the book for the musical, much of the actual conflict that occurred is brushed over or missing altogether. This leaves a very rushed and fragmented story that actually does Mr. Gordy and the label a great disservice as the blame for failure is constantly shifted to everyone else but the Captain of the Motown ship. Thus, the truth lies somewhere in-between Motown and Dreamgirls.
Director Charles Randolph Wright does his best to keep the focus off the book by having the music push through the story at record pace (leaving any type of character arch at its wayside).
It can’t be easy playing the record mogul who is watching your every more, but Clifton Oliver (Gordy) compounds the problem by delivering a majority of his lines to the audience rather than his fellow actors. Allison Semmes is a brilliantly surreal Diana Ross and is actually allowed the biggest character arch. Jarren Muse’s marvelous Marvin Gaye also gets some gritty moments but the book truly lets this relationship down the most.
But the book issues are superfluous because the audience is in attendance for one reason alone, the Motown songbook, and on that level, this musical never disappoints. This is aided by the brilliant choreography of both Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams and I defy anyone not to find the love (and respect) in Reed L. Shannon’s Michael Jackson or Nicholas Christopher’s Smokey Robinson.
It is said that music can move mountains but in Mr. Gordy’s case it is the mountains that moved to make way for his music. The world is a better place for it and we owe him a collective thank you.
Motown The Musical plays through August 9, 2014 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago. 800-775-2000, www.broadwayinchicago.com, tickets $30 – $138, Tuesdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 2 & 7:30 pm,Thursdays at 7;30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm with additional 7:30 pm performances on May 11 & July 6. For calendar information visit www.theatreinchicago.com