Motown: The Musical

Great music. Spirited performers. Energetic dancing. Lush costumes. A huge, beautifully lit stage. Big projections. Glitter and glamour, glitz and sparkle. All set to the driving beat of the Motown sound.

So why wasn’t I charmed, engaged, enthused, or energized?

Motown the Musical opens at a thrumming, breakneck pace as the superstars of Motown assemble in 1983 for a twenty-five-year reunion TV special. The question: will Berry Gordy appear? The frame is set for a flashback, as Gordy remembers the founding of Hitsville U.S.A.

The music is loud and fast—almost all the songs are sung faster than you remember them from the records—the personalities cross the stage in dizzying order and ever-more dazzling raiment, the scenes shift swiftly, and we have no time to think or even to blink as the hits start—and keep—coming.

The frenetic pace largely distracts from the fact that this emperor has no clothes: the show is all style over substance. And it’s not even terribly slickly or smartly done: much is in fact frankly awkward.

The show traces the history—as written by Berry Gordy—of Gordy’s founding and perfection of the Motown machine. Based on the Detroit auto factory model, Motown took the raw materials of unproven singers, songwriters, and musicians and churned out highly hummable, high-gloss, high-energy pop music that broke through the color barrier in the mid-sixties. The Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5 were all Motown products.

Interchangeability of parts was integral to Motown’s success. The songs and bands were tweaked and recombined to make a familiar house brand. In the show, Smokey Robinson is laughed at when he says his next hit will top Mary Wells’s “My Guy” and will be called “My Girl.” It was and it did. That’s how Motown worked. Easy, homogenized: not too much originality, not too much innovation.

This show is a continuation of that ethos, wherein lies many of its flaws and awkwardnesses. Rebecca E. Covington plays Gordy’s mother in an early scene; in the next, she’s a vibrant and vital Martha Vandella: disconcerting, until you realize that the actors are going to be used interchangeably. But it’s more than disconcerting, even once this has been established, to have Gordy tell songwriter Norman Whitfield (who will go on to compose “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”) never to sing onstage, only to have Whitfield portrayer Nicholas Christopher appear as one of the Temps in several subsequent scenes.

Similarly, the show presumes glossy effects require no more raison d'être than the tight harmonies of the Four Tops or the tighter lamé of the Supremes. So we have sets that stylishly break away right, left, up, and down to reveal nothing more than a bare stage; a huge momentary projection of Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross when she is nominated for Lady Sings the Blues; a two-story set of gyrating Motowners in London reminiscent of Fela! but assembled for only a couple of bars of music; a longish bedroom scene between Berry Gordy and Diana Ross which culminates not in consummation but in a quick costume change as the latter joins the Supremes stage right. Each case raises the question of why so much theatrical fuss for so little dramaturgical payoff?

Blatant sloppiness in writing and execution abounds. Book songs (all inferior to the Motown soundtrack) are introduced here and there to move the plot along, but sometimes, Motown songs are used to that effect as well. Sometimes, projections are used to comment on the times and convey a sense of time moving on; other times, the projections are simply a backdrop from the period for whatever Temps or Jackson 5 song is being performed on Ed Sullivan or on the road. Whites and blacks are kept separated at a Motown Revue show, but then the blacks run across the stage to the white side, and happily comingle not only with the other fans, but also—inexplicably—with the band performing onstage. In scene after scene, the coherences of theatrical storytelling are breached: where are we meant to be vis-à-vis the scene? Is this past or present or the present commenting on the past? Are we in Berry Gordy’s head? Then how can we know things he didn’t hear or see? The directorial and production philosophy seems to be to throw in another catchy tune, another snazzy costume, another pretty lighting effect, and maybe the audience won’t notice.

And indeed, the audience keeps cheering and singing along. Just in case enthusiasm should be waning, in the second act launching of Diana Ross’s solo career, a man—I don’t know what he was, actually: part of her act? An usher? A handler?—walked up the aisle showing us how to join hands and sway together as Diana sang, proving spontaneity can be scripted.

There were some good performances: notably, LeKae is almost achingly reminiscent of the young Diana Ross, and Raymond Luke was winningly adorable as little Michael Jackson. (There were also some truly outstanding dancers in the ensemble, but I cannot credit them by name any easier than I could the studio musicians who made the original Motown sound based on how they are listed in the program.) And the costumes and lighting are superlative. But the book is poor, the staging too often confusing, the dialogue frequently hackneyed, bewildering (“It’s all about semantics; it’s not about what people say”), or just tone deaf (Gordy’s imminent sale of Motown is decried as selling blacks’ heritage “down the drain” when “down the river” would have been so much more poignant and meaningful), and the audience manipulation palpable.

Ultimately, a show aiming to celebrate soul ends up having none.