More than a half century ago, Berry Gordy Jr. revolutionized music with his Motown record label, creating a catalog of hits — and hit-making legends — that is truly remarkable. And that catalog is the strongest element of Motown: The Musical, a nearly three-hour celebration of classic R&B and the somewhat prickly Detroit native who captured it on glorious and immortal vinyl.
At its best, the new Broadway show — produced and scripted by Gordy himself — plays like a theme night on an all-star season of American Idol, packing in nearly 60 songs from a wide swath of the label’s most recognizable artists. But between the energetic musical performances, backed by a tight 18-piece orchestra and boasting spirited choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, the cast is left to grapple with Gordy’s frankly amateurish book.
Granted, it must be tough to condense decades of history, dozens of artists, and all those glorious songs into a coherent narrative. And naturally, Gordy presents a rose-tinted account of his history (his one stab at self-deprecation comes in an awkward morning-after bedroom scene, when his newly minted lover Diana Ross reassures him, ”It’s all right, I’m a little tired, too”).
The characterizations are one-dimensional (from a high-voiced Smokey Robinson to a racist white Southern record distributor who’s portrayed like the white equivalent of Stepin Fetchit), and the dialogue beyond corny (Gordy: ”I just make music.” Ross: ”You make so much more than that”). The show even attempts to build a false sense of suspense with a phony framing device that laughably suggests that Gordy almost refused to attend Motown’s now-classic 25th anniversary concert (the one where Michael Jackson introduced the moonwalk, a moment not reproduced here) because it would feature so many artists who’d abandoned him and his label.
Brandon Victor Dixon is a charismatic Gordy, and Valisia LeKae nails the understated intensity of young Diana Ross. Raymond Luke Jr. (alternating with Jibreel Mawry) proves a scene-stealer in roles as a young Berry, Stevie Wonder, and especially Michael Jackson. In the ensemble, Saycon Sengbloh stands out as a soulful Martha Reeves, while Eric LaJuan Summers brings a lurid, loose-limbed showmanship to figures like Jackie Wilson and Rick James. But as good as the cast is, none are quite able to shake the indelible aural memory of the original performers. It’s mighty hard to live up to legends.
Even so, director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps the show moving briskly between those deadly, overly broad dramatic scenes. He’s aided by a first-rate technical team. David Korin’s clever scenic design simulates a computer screen in three dimensions with tableaux that play out in widening and shrinking windows. And Esosa, a Tony nominee and two-time Project Runway contestant, creates hundreds of distinctive costumes for the cast of quick-change artists.
The real stars, though, are those tunes. If Broadway producers insist on producing jukebox musicals, there’s no better jukebox to seek out than the classic Motown catalog. And while Gordy’s script may be an awkward ball of confusion, to cite a late Temptations hit, you might not be able to help yourself (sugar pie, honey bunch) from having a just good enough time. B-