Some musicals are plot-driven, with a few numbers interspersed here and there, but a musical about one of the most beloved record labels of all time and its founder should have lots of them. In that sense, Motown: The Musical surely delivers — perhaps even beyond what is desired or expected. When the curtain rises, the cast immediately launches into a medley of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “I Can’t Help Myself,” and the songs keep coming — 60 of them, including some unnecessary original music — for nearly three hours. Performances from characters including Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and many more are universally solid, and some thrill, but after a while it’s hard not to become desensitized to the magic. Do we need Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” in a show that’s already crammed full?
The sparing dialogue is used to set up each new song and to establish key players in an initially pretty thin plot. A young songwriter, Berry Gordy (Josh Tower), builds Motown out of nothing in Detroit. Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager) — a constant and often silly companion to Gordy’s character in the show — is one of Motown’s first talents, but Gordy quickly grows his list of hit-making artists. Among them are the Supremes, and Gordy’s romance with Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) comprises a chunk of the show. Motown’s move to L.A., and Gordy’s struggle there as artists leave the independent label to accept bigger offers at RCA and Columbia, is also shown. The evening concludes with Motown’s 25th anniversary celebration, where everyone reunites to sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
The costumes are great, and the energy the actors bring to their performances and choreography — such as the Jackie Wilson “Reet Petite” number (Rashad Naylor, in multiple roles like most of the actors) — was often enough to elicit chatter from the audience during the Wednesday night performance reviewed. Whispers and cries of “I love that song,” “Oh yeah!” and “Sing it, brother!” were regularly heard. But the most intense audience reaction might have been to Jackson 5 and splendid young talent Nathaniel Cullors, who plays Michael (as well as young Berry Gordy and Little Stevie Wonder). During “I Want You Back” it is easy to suspend disbelief and imagine you are seeing the real Jackson 5 perform. In moments like these, Motown proves its worth.
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Although most of Motown’s artists were black, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds claim ownership of the music, as was reflected by the diverse audience at the Winspear. It was the soundtrack the baby boomers grew up to, and it bridged racial divides. For a lot of white people, as it’s said in one scene, “their only connection to black culture is through music.” Motown isn’t overly political, but the civil rights movement, the assassinations of MLK and JFK, riots and bumbling cops aren’t glossed either, and (unfortunately) the topics still feel relevant.
Transitions between numbers are flawless. Set pieces fly in and out from every direction, forming a bedroom one moment, then a studio, then a set on The Ed Sullivan Show. White beams are constantly rearranging in Mondrian-like patterns, and cast in teals and pinks, the effect is stunning. Songs are adapted to the plot pretty successfully. Smokey Robinson sings “Shop Around” as Motown hunts for artists, and Gordy sings “My Girl” as he courts Diana Ross. It takes a while to adjust to the frenetic pace, and initial attempts by Marvin Gaye’s character to start a sing-along fell flat on a stiff audience. But by the second act, characters are a bit more developed and the crowd has warmed up a bit, too. Later efforts at audience participation went more smoothly: During “Reach Out and Touch,” Ross’ character pulled volunteers from the crowd to sing with her, and the two ladies and one gentleman chosen were good sports (“Where are you from?” “I’m from Coppell!”). Everyone in the audience held hands.
The dialogue is often eye-rollingly corny. (Jokes about how white people don’t have rhythm? Well deserved but also not very fresh.) Perhaps it’s good news then that there’s not a lot of it. Motown: The Musical is all about the music, as it should be, but it simply could benefit from some editing. With fewer numbers it would be easier to appreciate and savor the best ones. Overall, it’s sort of like seeing a really great wedding band. The hits don’t sound quite the same, and it’s kind of cheesy, but when the musicians bring enough energy and the guests bring a good attitude, it can be great fun. At the very least, Motown is the closest you can get to seeing all of these artists on one stage for $30.
Motown: The Musical is on stage at the Winspear Opera House (2403 Flora St.) through August 16. Tickets are $30-$95 at attpac.org.