Surely there should be a certain trepidation about Berry Gordy's Motown: The Musical, since it is based on the famed founder's 1994 book To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. Motown's story is not an easy one to tell and has further been complicated by some rather unflattering interpretations of Gordy in the past. Those were probably the catalyst for creating this production.
Gordy knew what he was doing then, and he knows what he is doing now. Taking the story for what it is, Gordy manages to depict himself in a fairly positive light. Even the one moment of impotence he chose to share from a personal recollection of intimacy with Diana Ross serves as a humanizing point for the man.
In other words, the story line will not please everyone, and it certainly leaves a lot of the label's history off the table. That said, the production recently wrapped up its original Broadway run this past January, and the cast performing it at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts did a phenomenal job with the music and choreography, which are the real reasons for seeing this musical in the first place.
Not that Motown's story isn't the point. This jukebox revue is heavy on the music and intersperses vignettes of key occurrences as anchoring points throughout -- like Stevie Wonder's mother's demands, tit-for-tats between Smokey Robinson and the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, family decisions, and the unavoidable social/racial concerns of the era.
The latter unfortunately suffers from brevity and serves no more than minute moments of gloom that offer a chronology -- President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Sen. Robert Kennedy's assassinations included. Other threads that attempt to vindicate Gordy concern the rise and fall of the Supremes, his relationship with Ross, and the power of Motown crossing racial barriers. All fine and dandy, but unfortunately far too complicated and convoluted to explore in this format, so enough of that.
The cast -- led by Clifton Oliver as Gordy, Allison Semmes as Ross, Jesse Nager as Robinson, Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and, on opening night, youngster Leon Outlaw Jr. in triple duty as a young Gordy, Wonder, and Michael Jackson -- performed superbly in their evolving roles. None broke stride amid the rest of the cast's whirlwind personas. Aside from one or two untimely microphone dips, the performances were flawless.
The cast, nearing 30 actors with most of them performing anywhere from three to six characters, did a fine job representing their subjects as Motown grew. A credit to director Charles Randolph-Wright, who allowed his singers to work in the style without a straightforward mimicry of who they portrayed. The results are energetic renditions clearly sung by folks enjoying themselves. The orchestra matched the energy paying special attention to key Motown assets like percussion, brass, and bass; conductor Darryl Archibald knows when to rein it in and when to go for broke from the drums out.
Oliver and Semmes have a good chemistry as Gordy and Ross, while Nager's Robinson is such a likable and earnest guy, you almost wish he had more stage time. However, the real revelation of the evening was Leon Outlaw Jr. Already blessed with a badass name, this kid can sing like it's nobody's business; what an absolute joy to witness. Remember the name.
Another hallmark of the cast was its improvisational ability. A couple of local shoutouts were mixed into the lyrics and Semmes' Ross made two performance-goers very happy when she descended into the crowd to sing "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" first with Alan from Boca Raton, who sheepishly confessed to not being ready for the song after catapulting himself from his seat when she asked for a volunteer, and then with Valeria, a 17-year-old who played along with the character declaring that she was from "Florida visiting Las Vegas." Both did a good job, and the audience got a kick out of it.
The most important thing to take away from Motown: The Musical, is the power of the music. Sure, it might seem at first like a sped-up version of what Magic 102.7 used to be, but once you let the songs take life and get animated by the cast's chutzpah, it is refreshing to see the sheer endurance of a craft that was once, well... well-crafted! These songs still have the power to get a packed house rocking.
My suggestion to the potential goer would be to consider taking the kids; they might be confused and disoriented at first. It's not their fault. The contemporary pop landscape has conditioned them differently, but after a song or two, they'll get it. Oh, they'll get it.
Motown: The Musical runs through Sunday, March 8, at the Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $34.75. Call 954-462-0222, or visit browardcenter.org.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!