By Donna Herman
It’s called “Motown: The Musical” but it’s really the Berry Gordy show. He wrote the book, he produced it and it’s about his life. Gordy is also credited with writing three original songs for the musical. However, the title is apt – the real star of the show, and the reason the seats are filled every night, is the 57 Motown songs the incredibly talented cast belt out.
From the opening notes of the first song, the audience is clapping, moving in their seats, and struggling – sometimes unsuccessfully – not to sing along. The show is high octane from beginning to end and we’re along for the ride every step of the way. “Motown: The Musical” starts on the set of the legendary Motown 25th Anniversary television special – you know the one – the one where Michael Jackson, singing “Billie Jean” in the black sequined jacket and pants, silver sequined shirt and socks and white sequined glove, does the moonwalk for the first time in public. We start with Motown already a legend. Then we flashback to his humble beginnings until we wind up at the end, back at the beginning – on the set of the 25th Anniversary television special.
This conceit gives Gordy more than enough opportunity to present us with the incredible acts he shepherded to stardom and his catalog of blockbuster #1 hits, while showcasing a roster of today’s talent that is every bit as soul stirring as the originals they’re portraying. Every single person in the cast was excellent, with special props to Chester Gregory playing Berry Gordy. You may have seen him on Broadway in Hairspray, or at the Apollo in his one man show about Jackie Wilson, but you’ve never seen him sing or dance better. He can do it all, tender, raucous, falsetto, whatever you throw at him, this man can do. Including charm. Both Allison Semmes who plays Diana Ross, and Jarran Muse who plays Marvin Gaye, bear uncanny resemblances to the originals, with talent to match. Ms. Semmes’ speaking voice is eerily like Ms. Ross’, and her singing voice, well, I didn’t want her to stop. She’s also got a twinkle and a presence that made it hard to tear your eyes away from her when she was on stage. There’s one part in the production where she interacts heavily with the audience and she was poised and gracious and pulled it off beautifully. Those moments can be cringe-worthy if the performer isn’t seasoned. Jarran Muse is extraordinary as Marvin Gaye. Not only is his singing voice actually thrilling, but he is a very gifted actor who gives us the troubled Gaye truthfully and with conviction. At the performance I saw, the young Michael Jackson was played by Leon Outlaw, Jr., who shares the role with J.J. Batteast. While his voice wasn’t a dead ringer for the young MJ, it was phenomenal in its own right, and Mr. Outlaw is a heck of a performer. His energy, movement, enthusiasm and joy was infectious and the woman next to me kept saying “Michael, oh Michael” during his rendition of the Jackson 5 classic “ABC”. I couldn’t blame her. It was bittersweet. I could go on to name every single performer, because they were all wonderful, but I don’t have the space. I do have to mention Martina Sykes who, as a member of the ensemble plays many roles, among them Mary Wells. I loved her voice and I thought she sounded remarkably like the original. Slightly raspy and smoky, she was in the pocket and looking fierce.
The production elements all work very well together with excellent attention to period detail from the sets to the costumes, to the choreography, which progress from the 1950’s to the 1960’s to the 1970’s to the early 1980’s together. The colors, styles, movements are fun to watch as they change and complement each other and help place us in the moment.
Is this the way it all went down? If you got all these people in a room together would they tell the same story? I doubt it. This is one man’s version. But I am more than happy that he chose to bring this one to the stage. I am grateful that he started Motown Records and did what he did. This is the music of the soundtrack of my life, I think it’s some of the best popular music ever written and it’s presented incredibly well here. You’d have to be a curmudgeon of the highest order not to enjoy this show. And if that’s who you are, you’re not going to a musical anyway.
“Motown: The Musical” Book by Berry Gordy; music & lyrics from the legendary Motown catalog by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing; Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, choreography by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams
WITH: Chester Gregory (Berry Gordy), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross), Jesse Nager (Smokey Robinson), Jarran Muse (Marvin Gaye), Leon Outlaw, Jr. & J.J. Batteast (Young Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson), Nik Alexander (Ensemble), Erick Buckley (Ensemble), Chante Carmel (Ensemble), Chadae (Ensemble), Lynorris Evans (Ensemble), Robert Hartwell (Ensemble), Trisha Jeffrey (Ensemble), Elijah Ahmad Lewis (Ensemble), Loren Lott (Ensemble), Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. (Ensemble), Krisha Marcano (Ensemble), Marq Moss (Ensemble), Rashad Naylor (Ensemble), Ramone Owens (Ensemble), Olivia Puckett (Ensemble), Jamison Scott (Ensemble), Joey Stone (Ensemble), Doug Storm (Ensemble), Martina Sykes (Ensemble), Julius Thomas III (Ensemble), Nik Walker (Ensemble)
Scenic design by David Korins; costume design by Esosa; lighting design by Natasha Katz; sound design by Peter Hylenski; production design by Daniel Brodie; casting by Bethany Knox, Telsey + Company; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; associate director Schele Williams; assistant choreographer Brian H. Brooks; production stage manager, Anna R. Kaltenbach; technical supervisor, David Benken; general management by Bespoke Theatricals; produced by Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris and Berry Gordy, executive producers Nina Lannan and Nansci Neiman-Legette, press representative Boneau/Bryan-Brown; music director/conductor Darryl Archibald; dance music arrangements by Zane Mark; additional arrangements by Bryan Crook, script consultants, David Goldsmith & Dick Scanlan; creative consultant Christie Burton; music supervision and arrangements by Ethan Popp. Tickets are on sale at www.ticketmaster.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 877-250-2929, or in person at the Nederlander Theatre box office (208 West 41st Street).