“Motown” On Broadway: My Review

Nothing that I or any critic says about +Motown+, the just-opened Broadway musical about some of the happiest music ever written, will matter a jot to the legions of baby boomers who can afford to reach into their pockets and cough up premium-priced tickets. (With a mammoth advance, the show could be subtitled “Kaching!”) But, for the record, this glittering tower erected to celebrate 83-year-old Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder, could have been a lot worse. Broadway has seen far sorrier jukebox musicals, and vast casts with scantier singing-and-dancing talent than the hard-working actors who kick and strut and shout their way across the Lunt-Fontanne stage.

As Gordy, who founded the label in Detroit in 1958 and saw it through its nonstop 1960s and 1970s hits and eventual desertion by its main names (Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye), Brandon Victor Dixon brings focus, intensity, and the occasional whiff of humor. He also has a terrific singing voice, which forces the question whether he, not the passably talented Bryan Terrell Clark, should have portrayed Gaye not Gordy. But Gordy, who is credited with the musical’s book, is no fool: he wanted the biggest talent onstage to fill his polished shoes, not those of the man who moved into political activism and drugs and violence.

The book, which begins and ends with Motown’s 25th-anniversary concert in 1983, is by far the evening’s weakest aspect. There is only the occasional attempt to shoehorn lyrics into a dramatic context; many of the numbers – almost 60 of them, from “ABC” to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” – are performed by the actors in concert or club settings. The Four Tops and The Temptations and The Supremes are all here, though for a key moment between Ross and Gordy (their love affair is the heart of the narrative) a ballad between Gaye and Tammi Terrell is used – without a whisper of the tragic Tammi’s name.

That of Florence Ballard, the tragic Supreme, is, however, mentioned. Her rise and fall was indelibly captured in “Dreamgirls.” “Motown,” however, doesn’t play as Gordy’s riposte to his unflattering portrayal in that 1981 show. You get the sense that he’s been wanting to spotlight his own story for decades before “Dreamgirls” hunh-hunhed its big behind by. Ross and Gaye and Smokey Robinson, also a major character in “Motown,” got the fame. But Gordy bided his time. And now he has a hit musical to show for it. Patience rewarded.

Watching “Motown,” which is basically a PBS-fundraising special with dialogue, I thought less of “Dreamgirls” and more about “Jersey Boys,” the musical about the Four Seasons. That is also a jukebox show, but unlike “Motown” it has a clear, streamlined book, and staging, by Des McAnuff, that glides by beautifully. The direction of “Motown,” by Charles Randolph-Wright, and choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, are perfectly fine, but there isn’t much Randolph-Wright could do with that book framework: the excitement comes more from the songs and the performances than from the situations from which they arise.

“Motown” has so much material to cram in that there necessarily had to be frustrations. I will mention only two: Stevie Wonder is introduced as a boy in act one, only to disappear until midway in act two. There is no mention of any of his classic 1970s records, including “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” and the 1976 double album that many people think is Motown’s crowning musical achievement: “Songs in the Key of Life.” Frustration number two: the appearance of the Jackson 5 provides a giant audience boost at the top of the second act. Yet they are nowhere to be seen in the 1983 grand finale. The whole world knows that at this occasion Michael Jackson moon-walked. Why was he jettisoned? Plenty of people who are in that scene had, like the Jacksons, moved on by then from Motown. What happened?

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