Motown the Musical: Berry Gordy’s lavish love letter to himself

Motown: The Musical begins with a high decibel blast of pure soul straight from the ’60s. Immediately we are in the midst of a marvelous musical battle – an energetic sing-off between The Tops and The Temps (Temptations), two of the best known male groups from the early years of Motown. From their patent leather shoes to their marcelled hair, the two groups exude attitude, their finely tuned choreography as graceful as their close harmonies.

We are off on a musical journey that careens from Motown Records’ signature pop-soul hybrid through gospel, jazz, funk and lush pop and all delivered with founder Berry Gordy’s signature tuneful riffs and hooks, rhythmic bass, sweet strings and elaborate production.

Presented by Broadway Across Canada at the Jubilee Auditorium until Feb. 18, this production is the poster child for the jukebox musical – the kind of show built on pop hits with a desultory “book” to hold them together. Sometimes, the construct works. Think of the charm of Mamma Mia! or the genuine dramatic impact of Jersey Boys. Mostly, though, dialogue is just throwaway – “fill” to keep the tunes from running into each other. Often the songs are painfully jack-hammered into an unyielding format.

Motown: The Musical has an actual book: Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved: the Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. And who better than Gordy to tell the story? He made it all happen when he established the all-black Motown Records – and The Marvelettes’ Please Mr. Postman topped the Hot 100 on Dec. 11, 1961.

The story begins with Gordy, his empire in ruins around him, sitting morosely and refusing to appear on stage where all the stars he created during his recording years are staging a great 25th anniversary celebration.

He remembers the people and events that made up his life – and what a life it was. Gordy was a driven songwriting entrepreneur who created a thriving independent record label, in of all places, Detroit. He just wanted to “make people happy” (and make a lot of money himself) by recording acts from the streets, community halls, churches and juke joints in the Detroit area. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, and along the way set spinning a cultural phenomenon that brought America’s black and white communities together in a celebration of music. He discovered Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson – and then it all went away as the artists he created left him, seduced by the blandishments of big money and big fame. Even the love of his life, one of the biggest stars he created and his own private diva, Diana Ross, decamped.

All this is told in a breathless manner and in the form of a continuing musical montage of some 58 songs. In fact, the amount of music that the production tries to cram into its two hours and 45 minutes leaves the story dramatically underdeveloped. Unlike other jukebox musicals, the songs are not embellished or re-orchestrated for the larger stage. They clock in the same length as they were on the charts – at two-and-a-half or three minutes. Some are just snippets that leave you wanting more. One exception is Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Streets, which is given an extended Broadway-style expansion and, my, does it build – abetted by some killer choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. But all that does is demonstrate what might have been. Berry’s will-he-or-won’t-he act wears a bit thin, and the latter half of the show turns into a gigantic love letter from Gordy to himself.

Despite these reservations, Motown is a very entertaining evening. It is visually gorgeous, handsomely produced, often downright exciting while effectively tapping into the nostalgia, exuberance and uplift of the music itself. The choreography is energetic and time-appropriate, taking you back to the innocence, energy and sense of making-it-up-as-you-went-along discovery that must have originally driven the exercise. The spectacular and eye-filling scenery is ingeniously enhanced by vivid 3D projections.

There is no faulting the performances. The single-named Trenyce is the embodiment of Diana Ross, capturing the diva’s limitless vocal talent and genuine star power. The actress provides some dramatic heft as well, projecting the star’s reservations about breaking up The Supremes and going solo (and later leaving Gordy’s smothering embrace; the $20 million she was offered by RCA must’ve helped).

Justin Reynolds is Smokey Robinson, who shows us the singer’s modesty and laid-back likable nature. Matt Manuel is conflicted as Marvin Gaye, incredibly talented and successful (58 million records sold), but more and more drawn into the politics of race.

The astonishing, pint-sized, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him young Michael Jackson – alternately played by Kai Calhoun and Chase Phillips – explodes on stage and pretty well wipes everything else right off it. As Berry Gordy himself, Kenneth Mosley is a whirlwind, singing, dancing, mooring his every scene with power and presence. The performer has a remarkably powerful voice in his big final power ballad, and proves to be right at home in funk and R&B. We get the hustle and integrity of the man, even if his heart gets a little lost in the surface glitz of the production.

When it’s all over you really haven’t learned much about the mogul who changed the architecture of the American musical scene forever – but you have been wonderfully entertained by a lavish, well produced and affectionate look at a seminal time in popular music.

Photos by Joan Marcus

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