On a cold and icy winter’s evening Feb 17th, a near-capacity crowd warmed up the Durham Performing Arts Center, both emotionally and physically for the opening-night performance of the Tony Award®-nominated, smash Broadway show Motown the Musical. For Triangle theatergoers to brave the weather, they expect to be thoroughly and completely entertained; and Berry Gordy’s music definitely did the trick, dazzling and intriguing the multi-generational audience. By the end of the evening, everyone was “reaching out and touching somebody’s hand.”
The show begins and ends with Motown’s 25th anniversary celebration, a show that that Berry Gordy almost failed to attend, because of his own disillusionment with the way his empire had begun disintegrating. Crammed with almost 60 numbers that are representative of Gordy’s Motown but provide the audience with only the briefest glimpse of some of its largest stars, the show barrels through the story of Gordy’s life from his childhood love for the brilliant boxer Joe Louis through the rise of Motown and all of the historical events that often underlined the music of the generation. Without a doubt, there are few people in the United States who do not recognize at least half a dozen of the hits created by Gordy’s “family.”
Julius Thomas III’s portrayal of Berry Gordy, the music magnate, is sensitive, upbeat, and passionate. He builds a strong belief in Gordy’s creative talents, especially during a scene with Smokey Robinson (played with appropriate breathiness and a constant smile by Jesse Nager) when he talks about the construction of a song: “[I]t’s a story that has a very definite beginning, middle, and end.”
The attention that Berry Gordy pays to his artists constructs the foundation of Motown. He understands what it takes to launch a new song, even holding meetings to vet the possible trajectory of a hit. Those who work with him ultimately call him “The Chairman,” referencing the respect they have for him, as well as his position at the head of the business table.
Though each of the superstars introduced in the fast-paced show could easily spend another 10 or 15 minutes on stage, the show focuses on only a few who were with Gordy from the very beginning: Smokey Robinson, one of Gordy’s first clients and, ultimately, his best and most loyal friend; Diana Ross (played perfectly by Allison Semmes, who appears to completely understand the connection that Ross and Gordy had, as well as Ross’s ability to mesmerize a crowd), who loved Gordy as both a man and a manager; and Marvin Gaye (sexily personified by Jarran Muse), one of the Motown performers who became the voice of a sgeneration and arguably the first Black male artist to both entertain and excite females of all races and ages.
Gordy’s blood family is large (he’s the seventh or eight children), and the support and love that he experienced during his childhood is extended to the huge group of performers he shepherds through their careers. Several times during the show, artists mention Gordy’s philosophy that “competition breeds champions.” Other managers might have been reticent to have several artists on their roster who had similar talents, yet Gordy wasn’t afraid to pit The Temptations against The Four Tops (as is evident by the opening scene of the musical), where the two groups basically have a sing-off/dance-off with their hits.
Berry Gordy’s roster also includes female groups like Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvellettes, and The Supremes, and child performers like Little Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5.
Though some critics have slammed this show, there are some memorable scenes in this Broadway musical, and one suspects that when it hits Broadway again next year, the book will be edited, some scenes might be extended and others may be cut. Although the story is about Gordy, and the music is the star, cramming portions of almost 60 songs into a two-hour show doesn’t give audience members the chance that they need to connect with the many characters and their stories as they intersect with Berry Gordy’s.
Everyone in the show sings as well as or better than the original stars (Marvin Gaye/Jarron Muse’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” is done a capella in the midst of a montage/conversation about the political problems of the 1960s and, in a lot of ways, is more effective than the original), dances enthusiastically, and embodies their characters in a way that is comfortable rather than a forced impersonation. Thankfully, the actors who play Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye are extremely talented; and their stories are more fully told than the many others’ who appear all too briefly.
The first half of the show covers 1938 to the early 1960s, the years when Hitsville House (Motown’s offices) grew in both physical size as well as financial clout, and showcases the boy and girl groups that were the backbone of Motown: The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Marvellettes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Diana Ross and The Supremes. Songs such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby Love,” “Got A Job,” “Lonely Teardrops,” “Shop Around,” and “To Be Loved,” pepper the audience with bullets of high-level energy.
Berry Gordy’s ability to spot a hit and to spin it, getting the music out to the general public, is applauded. His philosophy of creating music in the Detroit way, much as cars are created from scraps of metal, sent down a conveyor belt to arrive at the other end a drivable vehicle, is put into practice. He conducts a quality assurance check on each group/artist/song, and it works. He becomes famous and rich, and so do his performers. Everyone seems happy.
Relationships are most important in Hitsville U.S.A.. Trust is built between Gordy and his performers. Smokey Robinson credits his friend for having faith in him. Berry Gordy and Diana Ross move from mentor and ingénue to lovers. Marvin Gaye chooses to question not only Gordy’s leadership in the business but also his role as brother-in-law, and Gordy’s intense relationship with him becomes thornier as Gaye begins to reflect the Civil Rights issues of the early 1960s.
Gordy appreciated those who believed they could succeed, like Diana Ross; and he backed them 100 percent. His label became the only one to have multiple songs on the hit list.
After intermission, it’s obvious that the lure of a better deal and more money starts to splinter the Motown philosophy, and Gordy’s disappointment in his musical family is painfully clear. The betrayal almost takes him down, but he reaches into his bag of tricks and brings new acts into his circle.
Little Stevie Wonder becomes an adult, and Motown produces an album that breaks all records. The Jackson 5 start creating hits. Smokey Robinson comes through with another hit; and Diana Ross, now on her own, becomes a bona fide international star, acting in several well-reviewed movies. Nothing hit Gordy harder than his lover and favorite artist leaving him for an offer that she simply could not refuse.
The second half of the show is mostly about Berry Gordy’s relationship with Diana Ross, revealing how deeply their love mirrored what was happening in the business itself. When they sing “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Julius Thomas and Allison Semmes’ chemistry, as well as their incredible voices, light up the stage. Diana Ross’s strength as a performer, her ability to reach down into the audience and make them feel special, is beautifully highlighted when Semmes moves beyond the stage and urges everyone to “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.”
The most poignant scene in the show, however, is a love scene of a different kind. Gordy/Thomas sings “Can I Close the Door on Love” after an argument with Smokey/Nager about the plans for the 25th anniversary celebration of Motown, and the anguish he feels about losing the love of some of his musical family is tenderly evoked in Julius Thomas’ clear tenor. It is the music that Berry Gordy loves more than anything else, and that music is the reason he finally makes the decision to join the rest of the artists who have returned to celebrate Motown.
Though the actual structure of the show could use some tightening (and will probably be different once it returns Broadway in July 2016), the singing, dancing and acting is powerful; and if anyone can sit unmoving in a chair when listening to a songbook as danceable as Motown’s, they must be made of stone. Motown the Musical is a thoroughly enjoyable 30-year romp through music that everyone will recognize and appreciate, a dazzling dance that truly celebrates the rags-to-riches story that is an American classic. Berry Gordy is that American classic and one worthy of the accolades he has earned in his 85 years. Enjoy the show Feb. 17-22 at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 18th Burlington, NC Times-News review by Logan A. White for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/motown-musical-rewinds-back-down-a-melodic-path/; Feb. 17th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview by Kathy Hanrahan for “What’s on Tap”: http://www.wral.com/-motown-the-musical-to-go-on-at-dpac/14452483/; Feb. 14th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2015/02/14/4553602/preview-of-motown-the-musical.html; Feb. 12th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/x681773845/MOTOWN-MAGIC-N-C-teen-Reed-Shannon-on-tour-with-Motown-the-Musical (Note: You must subscribe to read this article); Feb. 2nd Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh interview with Reed Shannon, conducted by Jeffrey Karasarides: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interviews-Reed-Shannon-of-MOTOWN-National-Tour-20150202; and March 6, 2014 Raleigh, NC WNCN-TV interview with Reed Shannon, conducted by Valonda Calloway and Mike Morse for “My Carolina Today”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtaY3tiRH28&feature=youtu.be. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 17th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/02/motown-the-musical-marks-the-triumphant-return-of-cary-native-and-nctc-prodigy-reed-shannon/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents MOTOWN THE MUSICAL at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 and 19, 8 p.m. Feb. 20, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 21, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $52.19-$179.31 (including fees). Click here for DPAC Special Offers.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1984012.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://www.motownthemusical.com/videos.php.
TOUR CAST: http://www.motownthemusical.com/tour-cast.php.
TOUR CREATIVE TEAM: http://www.motownthemusical.com/creative.php.
2014-15 SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: http://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series-2014-15.
DPAC WEATHER POLICY: Unless DPAC makes a specific announcement, all shows will go on as scheduled. If inclement weather or adverse travel conditions prevent you from attending, please e-mail CustomerService@dpacnc.com. Click here for details of the DPAC Weather Policy.
DPAC PARENTAL ADVISORY: “All guests require a ticket, regardless of age. Children under the age of 6 will not be admitted to the theater. Children must be able to sit quietly in their own seat without disturbing other guests. As a further courtesy to our guests, DPAC recommends one parent or chaperone for every one child in attendance.”
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20th, performance.
Motown the Musical (2013 Broadway and 2015 West End musical): http://www.motownthemusical.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=493341 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motown:_The_Musical (Wikipedia).
Berry Gordy, Jr. (Detroit, MI-born composer, lyricist, and librettist and founder of Motown Records): http://www.rockhall.com/inductees/berry_gordy_jr/ (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=84065 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0330700/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berry_Gordy (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.com/.