Motown, the Musical Has So Many Songs, There's Little Room for Plot

Motown comes alive
Motown comes alive
Photo by Joan Marcus

The set-up:
The good news about Motown, the Musical (2013), now rocking the Hobby Center through July 26: too many songs. The bad news: too many songs.

The execution:
Adapted from Barry Gordy's autobiographic memoirs of founding the most significant black independent record company, a.k.a. Detroit's Motown Records, this jukebox musical pours out the hits. No less than 60, count them, 60!, nostalgic blasts from the past are sampled, all judiciously and painstakingly reenacted (from vocal inflections, clothes, to dance moves) by a remarkably talented cast.

All our favorite groups are on display – Jackie Wilson, Martha and Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Contours, Mary Wilson, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5 – who were all nurtured and nourished by entrepreneur Gordy.

American music changed forever when this struggling songwriter rented a house in Detroit and transformed it into the new Tin Pan Alley. Composers and lyricists such as Norman Whitfield, Brian Holland, Herbert Dozier, Freddie Perren, Alphonso Mizell, Valerie Simpson, Nickolas Ashford, gave the boot to vaunted Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers. Kids were listening to and buying a whole new music, created and performed by blacks. This new sound belonged to them, spoke to them, inspired them, just like the Lindy Hop had belonged to granny. Everybody moved to “Dancing in the Street,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Ain't No Mountain High Enough,” “Reach Out,” “My Guy,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Motown's R&B music and its incredibly visceral performers did more to bring us together than a phalanx of government social programs.

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But Motown isn't the show for social engineering. It's engineered strictly for entertainment. History flies by within a song or brief scene; the turbulent '60s are skimmed through in a glitzy montage. Even personal history takes a backseat to the music. There are so many characters to shift through, we never get to know any of them, especially the leads, Gordy and Diana Ross (Josh Tower and Allison Semmes). He's a guy with a dream; she's a looker with a voice. They fall for each other. He's busy and preoccupied; she needs attention. End of substandard plot. (Is Diana Ross the only living person to be the subject of two Broadway shows? This one and Dreamgirls.)

We know what Ross, et al., sounded and looked like, we grew up with them; they're part of our collective DNA. The cast brings these artists to amazing life, even if we only see them in snippets from their greatest hits. The musical's like the old Ed Sullivan Show. One song ends, David Korins' geometric grid set breaks apart and reforms, Natasha Katz's disco lighting goes into overdrive, maybe there's a quick dialogue passage, and another song begins. Sullivan (Doug Storm) even makes a cameo appearance, his stiffness and tics exaggerated just so, like an Al Hirschfeld sketch. He gets an appreciative round of applause from the nostalgic TV old-timers.

The verdict:
As Gordy, Tower croons with a velvet sheen, but he doesn't have any character to play. It's mostly one-note, and he's no more delineated than the acts he grooms and promotes. Only best friend Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager in soft sweet mode) and touchy Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse, phenomenal in the searing “What's Goin' On”) breathe any fire into the wan script. Semmes delivers Ross's breathy sensuality with great delight, tossing her lion's mane afro with studied nonchalance. At the end, she's every inch the glamorous Diana diva everybody recognizes, except she's a nice one in this story. Everybody's nice in this musical. Even Gordy's problems with lawsuits, recalcitrant singers, and corporate buyouts are treated with indifference. There's no time for drama, there's another song to sing, another light cue, another projection. So, ladies and gentlemen, for your enjoyment, here comes young Michael Jackson (when he was angelic, remember?)!

Motown. Through July 26. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information call 713-315-2525 or visit $30 - $170

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