Stage Review: ‘Motown: The Musical’

MotownWhen it came time to summarize the Motown era, it took two four-disc boxed CD sets comprising 180 tracks. So I guess it’s not surprising that “Motown: The Musical,” which opened at the National Theatre in Washington Wednesday, lists nearly 60 songs. But they’re mashed together so much, and in such truncated versions, that as the show opens, it begins in the second verse of “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch).”

That comes in the memorable Temptations vs. Four Tops battle that is being rehearsed for “Motown 25,” a landmark TV special so often run on public TV now that had its own problem squeezing every Motown era and star into one show. But while that one paused understandably for one non-Motown hit (“Billie Jean,” in a performance that skyrocketed an already soaring Michael Jackson), “Motown: The Musical” stops to include three non-hits that are the unquestionable lulls in a show that nudges toward the three hour mark.

With one of the greatest roster of hits of any independent label, Motown apparently still didn’t produce the exact songs to navigate the dramatic turns in the story, which at every point concerns company founder Berry Gordy Jr.

In that role as top dog, Josh Tower does a lot more singing than you’d expect from the boss, not only when he pitched some notable songs early in his career, but in these big numbers like the climactic bore, “Can I Close the Door,” which is prime candidate for cutting if the production is serious in cutting 10 minutes from the show before it returns to Broadway in July.

The story of Berry Gordy, we learn, is the story of his love for Diana Ross and doing everything he can to boost her career, even if it cost their relationship. That was also the story of “Mahogany” and even “Lady Sings the Blues,” the two big budget movies he got her in, and it was pretty much the story of “Dreamgirls” the previous Broadway hit modeled after Motown.

But where the Gordy figure in that production was a good deal more shady, Gordy here is practically Uncle Sam, on a parallel track with Martin Luther King Jr. in bringing the country out of darkness, even as he produced hit after hit and star after star. The central story of “Dreamgirls” — the fate of the Supremes in boosting Ross — is pretty much absent here. The Florence Ballard character is represented with a scowl and a disappearance, certainly not a showstopper like “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”

There are other aspects of the business Gordy would like you to know about, such as how he started and in particular a legal dispute with the songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland that serves as some sort of underlying conflict, to him at least.

The real sin of Motown, of course, was abandoning the city of Detroit in its hour of need, and chasing the big bucks of Los Angeles, a move that led to stars from Marvin Gaye to the Jackson 5 fleeing the label and the resulting generic R&B that was hardly as distinctive as anything from Hitsville U.S.A. But Gordy couldn’t quite see it then and apparently doesn’t now.

And make no mistake, this is his tale: He’s listed as the writer of the book, based on his own memoir. He even appeared during curtain calls Wednesday night.

So he’s seen in a pretty darn good light, except maybe when there’s a bedroom disappointment with Ross that’s written as comic relief. But maybe there’s too much attention to book in these jukebox musicals when in fact people want to hear the singles. And by and large they shine very brightly, played live with the same instrumentation (and mixed very well) and sung with no little verve, framed in terrific costumes by Esosa and a constantly moving set of grids and colors by David Korins, choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams (with particularly strong  Temptations moves) and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.

If there’s a star of the show, it’s Allison Semmes as Diana Ross, able to replicate the distinctive enunciation of her singing voice as well as that alluringly musical speaking voice whose secret may be always having a smile. She’s a standout in every song she’s in. And, possibly because Gordy is still building the show around her, he slows the show completely to include a languorous scene of her singing “Reach Out and Touch” in the Diana Ross way: strolling into the audience, having everyone hold hands and wave them and bringing actual audience members out to sing a verse (though the actual person who volunteered Wednesday was an alarming one — reality TV’s Omarosa).

Also good was Jarran Muse  as D.C. hometown hero Marvin Gaye. Not only could he navigate the star’s high notes and sex appeal, he was convincing — and compelling — as the socially conscious artist who produced “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me,” two songs that speak so strongly to current concerns, they stopped the show. Even when he wordlessly played an older Gaye, returning for the 25 special, he nailed Gaye’s rangy movements and warmth.

Jesse Nager’s Smokey Robinson looks perhaps least like his subject, and initially spoke in such a high register it was drew titters. He may have been hurt by being seen as a songwriter and singer with the early Miracles with none of his greatest hits included from “Ooo Baby Baby” to “Tracks of My Tears.”

Still, he had it better than Stevie Wonder, represented briefly in his Little Stevie period by Leon Outlaw Jr. (a terrific performer who also nailed young Michael Jackson in act two), who came back late in the show (played by Elijah Ahmad Lewis) to sing one song and lead the curtain call. And Jackson himself did little more than sing a medley of Jackson 5 hits.

But that was the problem overall: Too much ground to cover; too little time. Truth to tell, a number of stories within the Motown era are worthy of their own production: Ross, sure; but also Marvin Gaye, Stevie’s story, Michael Jackson’s rise, even the tragedy of Tammi Terrell. The story of the Supremes-like group was enough for “Dreamgirls.”

By squeezing so much in, especially in a second act cavalcade of latter-day hitmakers, from Rick James to the Commodores, the musical threatened to be little more than one of those “Legends” showcases where generic singers dress up as bygone stars and sing one of their hits.

It’s so rare, however, to hear these beloved songs sung and performed live with a great orchestra (conducted by Darryl Archibald), few will be disappointed just hearing the great wealth of wonderful songs from “My Girl” and “Dancing in the Street” to “I Want You Back.”

I felt a little cheated, though, when the Marvin Gaye/ Tammi Terrell duet “You’re All I Need to Get By” was turned into a Gordy/Ross duet to serve the story. But of course it was “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that closed the show providing the same kind of emotional high it gave 32 years ago  on “Motown 25″

“Motown: The Musical” runs through Jan. 3 at the National Theatre, Washington, D.C. 

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