By Pat Launer
Stop! In the name of love.
The national touring production of the 2013 Broadway hit (738 performances, nominated for 5 Tony Awards) is terrific. The costumes (all 450 of ‘em!) are jaw-dropping. The lighting is a knockout. The sets change fluidly and beautifully. And among the cast of 33, the dancing is head-spinning and the singing is superb.
This is not just a revue, or even a typical jukebox musical where a lame story is shoe-horned between a catalogue of famous or featured songs (the most egregious example of which: Mamma Mia!”). When, occasionally, this does occur in personal or political moments, it feels clunky (Diana Ross singing to Berry Gordy in bed? ugh).
No, this is, as advertised, the story of Motown, the hugely influential independent record label founded (in 1959) and run (until 1988) by Berry Gordy, a Detroit native who had an incredible eye and ear for talent.
Within his stable were acts that he promoted and developed (directing every aspect of their personal and professional lives, including their wardrobe choices), including The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes and The Jackson 5 to Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and of course, Diana Ross, with whom Gordy had a long-term relationship (and a child, Rhonda, born in 1971, though she isn’t mentioned in the show). But loyal as they were to Gordy, many of them, even Miss Ross (as she always insisted on being called), left Motown for more lucrative deals with bigger labels.
The framing device is the 25th anniversary of the founding of Motown, a tribute concert held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1983. Almost all the aforementioned acts have arrived to honor Gordy, whom they called Chairman. But Gordy doesn’t want to attend (“If they loved me, why did they leave me?”). He’s bitter and resentful. In the final scene, Diana Ross calls him onstage to join the people whose lives he touched and whose careers he launched.
Gordy wrote the book for this musical (and a few additional, unmemorable songs), based on his autobiography, “To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic and the Memories of Motown.” So, we only get to see the parts of his life and character that he chooses. Still, we see him as an obsessive perfectionist and a control freak, and he remains true to that characterization: he’s still tweaking the show, which has been on tour since May 2014.
Playing Gordy in this production, Julius Thomas III, who understudied the role on Broadway, is the marvelous centerpiece. He’s an agile mover, a solid actor and a wonderful singer. Thomas shows us a man who clearly loved his performers (in a very paternalistic way), but still seems to have cared more about pursuing his dream than anyone or anything else. On the way, he played a crucial role in the racial integration of pop music, and produced more than 525 albums and 180 #1 hits worldwide.
Jesse Nager and Jarran Muse, as the loyal Smokey Robinson and the feisty, more politicized Marvin Gaye, are excellent, both displaying outstanding voices, very credible facsimiles of the originals. Allison Semmes, as Diana Ross, has the diva look and attitude, and the chops, though she doesn’t make a big impression in the first act. But she really comes into her own in Act 2, as Miss Ross grows into her superstardom.
One showstopping performer plays young Berry, young Stevie and, most spectacularly, young Michael Jackson. Fourteen year-old Reed Shannon was phenomenal (he alternates with Nathaniel Cullors and Leon Outlaw, Jr.). He moves well, but it’s his singing that blows the roof off and brings the house down.
Many of the other Big Name acts — and numbers — get short shrift; there’s a whopping 60 songs represented here so, even with a nearly 3-hour running time, some songs are just snippets and some favorites will undoubtedly be missing, in the view of diehard fans.
Backed by a first-rate orchestra (five touring, ten local), we get unforgettable songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby I Need Your Lovin,’’ “Ball of Confusion,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “I’ll Be There,” “I Want You Back,” “Lonely Teardrops,” “My Girl,” “My Guy,” “War,” “What’s Going On,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Reach Out and Touch.” The upstage projections provide some socio-political context, but that definitely takes a backseat to the music.
At Wednesday’s performance, the sound was a bit problematic: ear-piercingly loud at the beginning of each act. In terms of staging (Charles Randolph-Wright directed; Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams choreographed), there were a few times when the male groups weren’t in perfect synch on those deliciously retro, stylized moves.
But any minor quibbles are drowned out by the sheer exuberance, lively pace, fantastic dancing and killer singing of this show. “Motown” makes you marvel at the extraordinary star-factory Gordy created. You’re bound to be smitten by the iconic Motown sound all over again.
- “Motown, The Musical” runs through June 14 at the Civic Theatre in downtown San Diego
- Performances are Friday & Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
- Tickets ($30-$195) are available at 619-570-1100 or online at www.broadwaysd.com
- Running time: 2 hrs. 45 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.