Walter’s World: Motown The Musical (with video)

July 16, 2013

15MOTOWN-articleLargeBy Walter Rutledge

After five weeks of previews Motown the Musical officially opened on Sunday, April 14. The show’s book by Berry Gordy is based on his autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories Of Motown by Berry Gordy, which chronicles his life and the Motown era. Director Charles Randolph-Wright takes us on a twenty-five year musical odyssey, telling the story of the people and the music that changed the world.

The show opens with a rehearsal by the Four Tops and the Temptations on the day of the Motown 25 Reunion. While at his Pasadena home, Berry Gordy is ambivalent about attending the performance because many of the acts and solo artists who careers he was instrumental in launching have left Motown. To compound the situation corporate conglomerates intent on driving independents, like Gordy, out of the recording industry have set their sights on Motown.

In a flashback we return to Gordy’s youth, he is an eight-year old boy listening to the Joe Louis/ Max Schmeling fight on the radio with his family. That was the day Gordy made his declaration to become as great as the “Brown Bomber” Louis. This is the true beginning of the production, which serves as both the story of Motown and the biography of Berry Gordy.

Brandon Victor Dixon as a driven Berry Gordy commands the stage and the role from his opening lines. This strong tenor voice combined with a nature stage presence makes him the surrogate master of ceremonies for this musical juggernaut. Dixon doesn’t just portray the main character, but leads this outstanding cast with a cool, but impassioned temperament.

If Dixon is cool, then Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross can only be described is sultry. From her first scene as the 16 year-old Diane to he finale number Ain’t No Mountain High Enough her vocal renditions; posture and stage demeanor personifies Ms. Ross. In fact she is so good at time we want her to be Diana Ross.

Much of the storyline revolves around the real life love affair between Gordy and Ross. In one of the Act One climaxes the two share a duet in which they profess their love set to Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s You’re All I Need To Get By. In two other pivotal moments in the production, including the finale two other Ashford and Simpson songs are performed, Reach Out and Touch and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. These songs serve as a testament of the timeless power and artistic genius of this exceptional song writing team, whose lyrics are sheer poetry set to music.

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Gordy’s friend and music alley Smokey Robinson, Charl Brown, captures the balladeers smooth sound and his artistic timing was impeccable. His character provides both touches of comic relief and dramatic pathos. Bryan Terrell Clark’s Marvin Gaye is spot on especially when it comes to the music from Gaye’s protest years including What’s Going On and Mercy, Mercy Me; and the audience grooved with Ryan Shaw, as Stevie Wonder who was “signed, sealed and delivered” in the role.

Many of the cast members performed multiple roles. Raymond Luke Jr. performed triple duty as a young Berry Gordy, Steve Wonder and Michael Jackson. Eric LaJuan Summers stole the scene as the lead singer for the Contours, and the charismatic Jackie Wilson. Summers is a crowd pleaser as funks super freak Rick James and complemented the cast as a member of the Jackson Five.

The word “musical” in the title may be a misnomer when one describes this production. In many respects it is the archetypical Broadway musical/ spectacle. This grand presentation features over forty performers; has two choreographers, Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams; and an orchestra of eighteen musicians. From beginning to end the production value is first rate. Simple, but eye catching sets by David Korins coupled with state of the art rear projections video transport us from Detroit to Atlanta, and from Paris to Los Angeles. Esosa’s period costumes take us from the meager beginnings of Motown to the extravagant stage productions from the stars of Hitsville U.S.A.

To answer the augment in the previous paragraph, yes- the production is a musical. Motown The Musical introduces the audience to a torture soul surrounded by turmoil; turned desire into love; presented triumph and betrayal, but it was much more than just a musical. The production introduced characteristic associated with a revue, featuring over fifty songs from the legendary Motown music catalog. Because of the number of songs and their familiarity with the audience the book slightly suffers. At times it feels like the music is leading the story.

The musical was also a concert. With recreations of actual performances and one number involved audience members’, which was delightful. And if that was enough by telling the evolution of Motown the show also inadvertently chronicled an important part of the American black experience, which gave it at times documentary qualities.

The word that definitively defines Motown the Musical is entertaining. Throughout most of the production the audience was carried away by the infectious, timeless Motown sound. They sang along, swayed back and forth, and literally danced in their seats. It was great to see that sparkle of youth from so many AARP “youngsters”, but you didn’t have to be old enough to remember a vinyl 45 to have a great time. These songs, with their driving rhythms and memorable (real) lyrics are as popular now as they were when music was originally released.

Motown The Musical is one of the 2013 Broadway season must-see events. It is a fun evening for those who remember the Motown Sound first hand; or for those who appreciate a nostalgic look at an important part of American music history. This musical will literally have you “dancing in the streets”.

In Photo: 1)Jesse Nager, Donald Webber Jr., Julius Thomas, Ephraim M. Sykes and Jawan M. Jackson 2) Brandon Victor Dixon 3)Brandon Victor Dixon and Valisia LeKae 4) Bryan Terrell Clark 5) Raymond Luke Jr (center) 6) Valisia LeKae 7) cast

Joan Marcus photographer.

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