Motown: The Musical is one of those shows that gets the moniker of “jukebox,” and this one totally deserves it, since it offers nearly 60 tunes that cover a span of more than 30 years of Pop music. They spin by even faster than the 45 rpm disks most were originally released on in this Broadway touring production that works hard to encompass the output of all of Motown’s renowned artists — Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha Reeves, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder — and that’s just a sampling. Cramming all these tunes into one onstage show (currently in residence at Downtown Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center through Sept. 20) means we seldom get full versions. That’s a little disappointing, but before you have time to wish there was more of a particular number, the vibrant cast is on to another memorable hit. So for music fans, this is a great evening.
That’s less the case for anyone seeking powerful theater. The story of the rise and fall of the great independent record company was penned by none other than Berry Gordy, they guy who created Motown and who ran it with an iron fist until it was finally sold in 1988. He’s the man, to be sure, but he would have done better to turn over the playwriting to someone with a little less involvement. You could hardly call this an objective treatment of Motown’s meteoric streak across the firmament. (Gordy also served as one of the show’s producers, too, so there probably wasn’t anyone to tell him he needed a more professional hand on the script.)
The story is framed by events in 1983 around Motown’s 25th anniversary celebration with the angry Gordy doubting that any of his stable of performers appreciate all the work he did to make them stars. We see Gordy as a kid, wanting to have a career like the boxer Joe Louis. Told that that’s not his path, he’s urged to “be the best I can be,” and that sets him on his course. We jump to the late 1950s when he gets Jackie Wilson to record a song he’s written, and then we’re off and running through a chronology of singers and songs. Every time we return to one of Gordy’s mundane moments, the action drags. But those moments are quick hits, too often for humorous effect to make Gordy look more human. I doubt this will have any impact on the affection of the audience for the music that bridged the gap between black and white during a turbulent period of American history.
Most of the actors in this demanding production play multiple stars, singing and dancing up a storm. Josh Towers is Berry Gordy; on opening night Ashley Tamar Davis played the role of Diana Ross, doing a very credible job as Gordy’s leading lady (the role is usually played by Allison Semmes on this tour). Jesse Nager is Smokey Robinson, Gordy’s left-hand man, and Jarran Muse takes on the complex Marvin Gaye and brings down the house more than once with his renditions of Gaye’s darker, more provocative numbers, including “War” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Diminutive powerhouse Leon Outlaw Jr. dazzled the audience on opening night as Young Michael Jackson.”
If it’s the music of Motown you live for, you’ll have a lot of fun at this production. You’ll even learn some interesting history about the backstage world of the recording company and its many stars. But this musical is a very superficial documentary: Just when you might be drawn into the drama, we’re back to the music. Go for the tunes, and have a blast.
MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati, continues at the Aronoff Center through Sept. 20.