Motown the Musical is playing throughout September at The Orpheum Theatre and over Labor Day I went and saw the production. Growing up in the 70s, of course I was aware of Motown, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. But I didn’t know about the rich history of the label that was started by a failed boxer, Berry Gordy, which the show is determined to tell you. This is Berry Gordy’s world, and we are here to get his side of the story.
Based on Gordy’s memoir To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, this is a sprawling musical. We start at the 1983 25th Anniversary celebration of Motown in Pasadena, with Gordy a no-show to his own event. He’s at home hate-watching on TV, angry it features all the artists who have left his label over the years. We’re then transported back to where it all began, with a young Gordy determined to be the next Joe Frasier. Failing that, he borrows $1000 from the family grocery store and opens Hitsville, USA and enjoys success singing and writing songs, and signs early acts The Marvellettes, Mary Wells, and The Temptations. Berry starts the Motown label to feature funkier music, and signs The Supremes, Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder, etc. We’re also treated to behind the scenes drama between Gordy and Ross, as they fall in love, her rise in fame in success, and their eventual split as her career outgrows Gordy’s management and signs with MCA records.
As a playwright, Berry proves to be less inspired. The book, as they say, is thin. The whole thing feels sanitized to burnish Gordy’s reputation a little bit more. Almost every line of dialogue is a cliché, with Gordy presenting himself as flawed only insomuch as he is trying to create legends. You’re bombarded by constant scene changes, different locations fly in and then are gone in a flash, aided by 8 LED bars that frame different situations. Characters come and go so quickly it’s difficult to follow the story. Even the most interesting part of the musical, Gordy’s relationship with Diana Ross, is given short shrift. Reduced to a handful of scenes, Ross wants too much attention, diverting Gordy from his first love, Motown. Early in the relationship, there’s a short scene of the two in Paris that is fascinating. Ross and Gordy in a cafe dreaming of a run of shows at the Copa that would lead to bigger gigs, makes me wish we could spend the entire 3 hours just exploring this time in their lives. The actress playing Ross in the touring version is amazing, going from the young schoolgirl to the star of Mahogany full throttle and bringing the young Ross alive.
Where the musical really should’ve shined, the Motown catalog, is the biggest disappointment. With over 50 songs shoehorned into this musical, most are presented as snippets, with some serving as transitions or sung by characters as parts of the book. A handful are even used as background to dialogue. The few songs that get fuller versions, like Martha & The Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Street’ or Ross’s ‘Reach Out and Touch’ had the audience grooving in the aisles. In those moments, you get a sense of the real magic of Motown and it’s ability to bring people together. It’s a lot to take in and I was exhausted by the end. As Gordy runs down the aisle to accept the honor in Pasadena, we get one last song before the curtain call, but by that time I was already checking to see if Dreamgirls was streaming on Netflix.
Image via SHN