Are you a baby boomer? If so, you grew up with Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye. These artists and the myriad of others on the Motown record label (yeah, records) may make you nostalgic for your youth. If you are of a certain age, then you may already have your tickets to see the new jukebox musical Motown at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The show is presented by Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, and stars some of the most talented performers on Broadway. The show stands up well to the scrutiny of those who are familiar with the original artists.
The story begins in 1983 with the 25th anniversary of the Motown labels. Many of the artists are returning, but Gordy is resentful and refuses to attend; he helped make their careers but they left him after they were successful. The first few moments of the show are energetic with a good opening of The Four Tops and The Temptations vocally dueling. Then it gets quite slow with flashbacks to 9-year-old Gordy with his family watching Joe Louis become boxing's world champion.
Gordy was responsible for launching the careers of some of the most famous and successful in Rock and Roll history and the book for Motown comes from his own memoir. However, his involvement brings all the assets and liabilities of having someone so involved with the development of the musical. One wonders about how honest he is in his own role. He appears as a martyr, betrayed by the artists he considered family, an unblemished hero whose only fault is that he works too hard for his artists. Brandon Victor Dixon is quite good as Gordy. He's best when he gets to use 'real' language and not the cliched phrases that sometimes mar the book.
Motown takes place during some of the most tumultuous times in American history, but truthfully, there appears to be little connection to the Kennedy and King assassinations and the Vietnam war to the music other than emotionally. So why include it?
The audience comes for the music and is more than thrilled with what they get. Charl Brown is wonderful as Smoky Robinson. Brown even manages to capture Robinson’s whispery speaking voice and is likable and sympathetic. Valisia Lekae (Book of Mormon) as Diana Ross, grows from the meek-looking skinny girl into a diva. She's best when she breaks the fourth wall in the her "Vegas" act and goes into the theater audience, even pulling a couple of members to sing with her. One of the audience favorites is Raymond Luke Jr. as a young Michael Jackson leading the Jackson Five. The list goes on as the show incorporates more than 50 songs, some of which unfortunately are not played in their entirety. But the music is great!
It's the music that sells the tickets and has the audience dancing in the seats. It's not the tepid story or the tumultuous historical events. If you want to ask for an opinion about Motown, don't ask the critics. Ask your friends. While the critics want to fix Motown, the fans just want to enjoy it.