Review: Catchy return of 'Motown: The Musical' on Broadway
NEW YORK (AP) — Motown. The single word instantly conjures memories and snatches of songs from the many gold records and superstars who came out of that Detroit label — Diana Ross, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops, to name a few.
Now "Motown: The Musical" has returned to Broadway for a rafter-rattling version of the iconic record label's tumultuous history, told from the perspective of founder Berry Gordy, who wrote the book for the show.
Like the legendary music catalog from Motown, the revival that re-opened Thursday night at the Nederlander Theatre is alternately catchy and soulful, and overstuffed with memorable melodies.
Last seen on Broadway in a nearly two-year run that ended in January 2015, it remains an energetic ride through Gordy's version of history after founding Motown as Hitsville USA in 1959.
The score is gilded with too-brief reminders of many favorite pop classics amid flashbacks to troubled times in America that are sadly relevant again. The Motown sound brought together teenagers and music lovers, both black and white for the first time, during the rise of civil rights and black power movements.
Gordy tells the story of his Motown family of staff and artists as they first struggled to get their music on the air, then turned Motown into a glittering music industry superpower.
The show opens and closes at a bittersweet 1983 reunion of by-then scattered Motown artists, while in between we watch the impact of Gordy and Motown on the music business and — with a few historic liberties — on American culture.
Nearly 60 songs from the Motown catalog are included, many just hinted at in truncated versions but some fully performed, weaving into and out of more than 20 scenes that have generally been effectively wrangled by director Charles Randolph-Wright.
Chester Gregory is impassioned and likable as Gordy, exuding the confidence that enabled Gordy to recognize so much chart-topping talent and strategize his acts into important white entertainment outlets. Allison Semmes is simply amazing as Diana Ross, channeling the original with a sweet, rich voice that soars to superstar levels in numbers like "I Hear a Symphony" and "Reach Out and Touch."
Jesse Nager is sweetly engaging as Smokey Robinson, Gordy's co-founder and friend, who improbably saves a dangerously simmering segregated concert with "You've Really Got a Hold On Me." Jarran Muse is a thoughtful, brooding Marvin Gaye, communicating everyone's pain and confusion with an emotional version of "What's Going On?" after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is shot and riots erupt around the country.
Gordy's book sometimes awkwardly juxtaposes tragedy with personal moments, as when the ensemble pounds out "War" after one of Gordy's acts sues him, against a backdrop of newsreel footage of violent protest and the Vietnam war. And a militant version of "Ball of Confusion" is soon lightened when Leon Outlaw Jr. bursts onstage to steal his scenes as young Michael Jackson.
The hardworking ensemble of 33 take multiple roles and dance their feet off, especially in their joyful performance of "Dancing in the Street" led by Chante Carmel as Martha Reeves with the Vandellas. Costumes reflect the eras, including snazzy sharkskin suits, glitzy mini-dresses, and elegant gowns, all by Emilio Sosa. Pulsating choreography from Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams evolves with the changing times on David Korins' colorful sets. And kudos to the orchestra, conducted by Darryl Archibald.
If Gordy is a little grandiose about his accomplishments, well, he's telling the story and there's no denying the enormous contribution he made to American music.