Based on Barry Gordy’s memoir, and with a book by Gordy himself, “Motown: The Musical” is a sleek and slick look at one of the most influential record labels in American history.
Gordy, of course, is the man who created Motown. And Motown gave Detroit a cultural cache beyond making cars. It helped desegregate radio, proving that music by black musicians need not be limited to black audiences. It nurtured and made stars out of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and dozens of other hit-makers.
And, it released some of the greatest American popular music ever written: “My Girl.” “I Heard It Though the Grapevine.” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” “Ball of Confusion.” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “Stop in the Name of Love.” “I Want You Back.”
These songs, and dozens more, take center stage as “Motown: The Musical” powers through some of the label’s biggest hits. The national touring production of this 2013 Broadway show is now playing at the INB Performing Arts Center through the weekend.
What makes “Motown: The Musical” an atypical jukebox musical is its story doesn’t center on one performer (i.e. “Buddy”) or even a group of performers (“Million Dollar Quartet”). It’s about a songwriter, producer and entrepreneur who’s not known as a performer. To get around this, Gordy (impressively played by Kenneth Mosley) sings along with the songs his label made famous. The show also sports three new songs, written by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith, to bring some context to the action.
We follow Gordy from his childhood, inspired to dream big by boxer Joe Lewis, to his starting of Motown, with $800 borrowed from his family’s grocery business. We watch as the scrappy Detroit label scores its first No. 1 hit (Mary Wells’ “My Guy”), then another and another.
Bookended by events surrounding the now-iconic 1983 TV special “Motown 25” – we begin with a “dance off” between the Four Tops and the Temptations, and end with a group serenade of Gordy as his company struggles for survival – the show hits the high points, and a few low spots, in Gordy’s career.
While there is a cavalcade of musical stars included in “Motown,” it centers on Gordy’s relationship with three in particular – Diana Ross (Trenyce), Marvin Gaye (Matt Manuel) and Smokey Robinson (Justin Reynolds). Robinson is his loyal friend. Ross is his lover, and his greatest creation. Gaye is his demanding star who is like a rebellious son.
Across the board, the leading performers are top notch. Trenyce, an “American Idol” finalist from season two, is especially good as Ross. On stage, she goes from sassy school girl to diva. She does an excellent job with Ross’ mannerisms, and she easily handles Ross’ distinct vocal style.
Her scenes with Kenneth Mosley, as Ross and Gordy are falling in and out of love, give some emotional weight to the evening – as do the scenes with Mosley and Manuel. Gordy and Gaye butt heads frequently, and their relationship in the show is one of frequent friction. Both actors handle it well. Also particularly strong is Manuel’s vocal performance as Gaye. To hear him sing “What’s Going On” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was something.
The ensemble players, who take on multiple roles through the show, also are strong performers, as they jump from roles in one legendary band after another. And when Kai Calhoun came on stage as young Michael Jackson, resplendent in a beaded purple fringe vest and matching fedora, much like the one Jackson wore for the Jackson 5’s iconic appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” well, the audience on Wednesday night whooped it up like they were watching the real thing.
Throughout Wednesday’s opening night performance, the crowd was there for the fun, and for the music. At intermission, after a rousing performance of the Edwin Starr hit “War,” and an emotional scene following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the audience erupted in thunderous applause. It may have been a Broadway show, but for fans of Motown’s music, the night was a chance to re-live some musical memories.
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