I arrived at Motown: the Musical (Kevin Mcollum, Doug Morris, and Berry Gordy) without knowing a great deal about the history of the music or the character’s portrayed: in fact, in a cast that included Berry Gordy (Josh Tower), Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager), Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), Stevie Wonder (Elijah Ahmad Lewis) and Mary Wells (Martina Sykes): the only two artists portrayed whom I knew anything about, other than having heard their names, were Diana Ross (Trisha Jeffrey) and the young Michael Jackson ( Nathaniel Cullors/Leon Outlaw Jr). I realize this is probably a unique, perhaps singular, musical experience for likely patrons of the show, but in spite of that, and even though I sometimes found the plot difficult to follow (it really did focus more of the music and the times of Motown), I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The story begins with Berry Gordy returning to Detroit after building the Motown Empire, telling his sister Chadae (Talya Groves) that he “has been told that home is where they have to take you in when you don’t have anywhere else to go.” The rest of the musical focuses on Motown’s rise, his discovery of its various musical artists from the Jackson Five to the Supremes, and his romance with Diana Ross. Those three actors all turn in noteworthy performances. Towers is sulky even through his rise to power, Chadae a tender, almost archetypical female presence (credible archetype’s are an accomplishment on stage because they don’t exist in real life just as a caricatures are failures because they regrettably sometimes do at least to outward appearances), and Jeffrey is beautiful, larger than life, and dominates the stage and music with her gorgeous voice as Diana Ross, but there are plenty of other hits for lovers of Motown music lovers to consume (they loom somewhere in my consciousness, presumably form childhood rides in Mom’s van with the radio playing) although I was told by my guest that they appear in rather abbreviated but thoroughly enjoyable versions.
The ensemble did indeed do an excellent job, executing the highly unoriginal score, and though not to my musical taste, I enjoyed and appreciated every single number. In addition to music, and plot, the show tried to give a sense of the time and political crises, and seemed to have an almost academic thesis that the cultural integration of black and white people did and can serve as a force for more progress in race relations. In one scene, blacks and whites are appearing to be separated at a concert, but we are told “they both loved the music and then they almost started to love each other.” This optimistic tone, like the intense and dazzling musical numbers, seem to dominate the show. That is not the social and racially motivated tragedies of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were ignored, but the focus was on the success of Motown as a cultural force through different decades. Much of this was accomplished with the help of astounding technical aspects (David Benken) with dazzling set changes and backdrops (David Korins), costumes (Esosa), projection designs (Daniel Brodie) and effects that gave one a sense of being moved through time on the music company’s historic journey and reliving an era in which race relations, however incrementally, seemed to be moving forward through music. All in all that was quite an effect.
Motown: The Musical is playing at The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts located at 929 North Water Street: Milwaukee . Performances continue through Sunday July 12th, 2015. Performances are Thursday July 9th at 7:30, Friday July 10th at 8:00, Saturday July 11th at 2:00 and 8:00, and Sunday July 12th at 2:00 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets are between 25 and 125 dollars. Call 1-414-275-7206. The ride is easy, the parking is easy and the seats a lot less than the Chicago production The Marcus Theatre is an amazing complex- well worth the drive to Milwaukee.