Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Musically Supreme 'Motown' is Well-Worth the Temptation, but Not a Truly Great Musical

Theater Review

Motown: the Musical
written by Berry Gordy
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru August 9

The music of Motown is the stuff of Miracles. 

And Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes, etc., etc., etc.

And with plenty of it performed, well, over the course of nearly 3 hours, by talented young singers and dancers emulating--if understandably never quite matching--Smokey, Diana, Martha, Marvin, Michael, Stevie, et. al.--Motown: the Musical can't help but provide considerable delight.

When it opened on Broadway just over a year ago, reviews hailed the wonderful, oft-infectious music, but noted that even for a "jukebox musical," the book (i.e. narrative) was flimsy at best.

But the fans didn't care, making Motown a huge hit in NYC.

And now out on tour, where night one in Chicago was filled to capacity and an extension already announced, it seems the public just can't get enough of the classic sounds of Motown.

Well, the fans are right and the critics are right.

If you love Motown, the music of the legendary Detroit record label--and really, if you don't, I'm not sure what's wrong with you--you'll spend a good part of the evening at Motown: the Musical singing, dancing and clapping along. 

But especially if you are a regular and somewhat discerning theatergoer, you'll also note that the narrative--written by the man much of it is about, Motown founder Berry Gordy--lacks much depth and novelty as the biography of Motown is told in rather cursory fashion.

At the end of Act I, I thought Motown felt like a @@@@ (out of 5) musical, with so much great music as to be thoroughly entertaining--with strong performances by Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy, Allison Semmes as Diana Ross, Nicholas Christopher as Smokey Robinson, Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and groups of performers embodying the Temptations, Four Tops, Contours, Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas and others--but a rather flimsy book. I learned almost nothing about any of the artists themselves, or the context in which the music was created in Detroit in the 60s.

But Act II, though shorter, really tended to drag on with far too much focus on the business struggles of the Motown label in the late 70s/early 80s, well after Gordy had moved the company to Los Angeles.

Leon Outlaw, Jr. was terrific as a young, Jackson 5 fronting Michael, Elijah Ahmad Lewis reminded us how great Stevie Wonder is and Semmes was well-sung as Diana Ross--who will be around the corner at the Chicago Theatre next week--but even the narrative about Berry and Diana's romantic relationship didn't do all that much to inform or excite. It all kind of felt like Behind the Music Lite.

And to be honest, despite more than 60 songs (many only performed in part), I left the theater thinking of many more I would have liked to have heard, perhaps instead of some performed. This doesn't even count Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," which was recorded for Epic and though the clear highlight of the Motown 25 TV show--which opens and closes Motown: the Musical--wasn't included or even referenced.

The bottom line is that for just $10 as part of my Broadway in Chicago upper balcony subscription, Motown was well worth my time and money, and I'm glad I saw it. If you can get a ticket at a price you can live with, there's enough to like--even love--that you shouldn't regret it.

But I think the truth is that if Motown: The Musical was set up as simply a pair of imagined performances--from say 1965 and 1973--featuring the best of Motown, with just a bit of biography, it would have been even more satisfying.

Or if Gordy had deferred to another book writer to turn his legendary story into a truly compelling musical. 

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