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Motown musical leaves 'em dancing in the seats at the Fisher Theatre
DETROIT -- Truth be told, its body of songs alone insures that "Motown The Musical" could be about the Theory of Relativity and still be a winner.
The best part of the Tony Award-nominated production, which opened its three-and-a-half week run at the Fisher Theatre this week, is its music, 65 songs from Motown's legendary and iconic catalog of pop and R&B hits whose first notes can't help but get a crowd dancing in the seats. And while it's not strictly a "jukebox" musical built around performances of those songs, it's hard to expect any story -- even one as inspiring as Berry Gordy, Jr.'s founding and direction of the company -- to compete with that sheer volume of material.
Having "Motown The Musical" in Motown, just blocks away from the label's Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters on W. Grand Boulevard, gives the touring company's Fisher stand a certain resonance, of course -- especially with Gordy and scores of alumni, including Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and more in the house for its second night. Sets depicting the Flame Show Bar and other local sites connect in a different way, and some of the script's wry, inside jokes will surely be understood better at the Fisher than in other cities, making for a highly participatory and interactive kind of theater experience.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and based on Gordy's 1994 memoir "To Be Loved," "Motown The Musical" paints the company's history in broad strokes and at a dizzying pace, particularly during a first act that stretches from Joe Louis' boxing victory over Max Schmeling in 1938 through 1968. Bookended by the 1983 "Motown 25" TV special and an older, embittered Gordy's reluctance to participate, the production cruises through all the key points, including his time writing hits for Jackie Wilson, a chance meeting with Robinson and the Miracles, the meeting during which he negotiated an $800 loan to start the company from his family, the Motortown Revue tours, the company's famed Quality Control meetings to choose hits, Motown's role in civil rights and black empowerment, and Gordy's romance with Diana Ross -- all staged with quick, brisk energy that keeps the musical moving.
The second act meanders more, particularly a lengthy recreation of Ross' first solo show in Las Vegas during which Allison Semmes journeys into the crowd and allows some fans to sing part of "Reach Out and Touch." It also offers a clear-eyed look at Motown's decline during the 80s, and even as Gordy eventually relents and joins the "Motown 25" gathering, the musical is smart enough to remind us that Motown still faced challenges at the time (and was sold by Gordy just five years later).
Motown aficionados, especially in Detroit, may quibble over certain points of accuracy, song sequencing and short shrift given to some artists -- including even Wonder. Those are fair criticisms, but the antidote is to sit back and enjoy the hit parade as well as show-stopping performances by Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and Reed L. Shannon as Michael Jackson. The nimble cast is dominated by actors capably playing multiple roles, from stars to behind-the-scenes executive, while Clifton Oliver, as Gordy, looks more like someone who should be playing Gaye but presents the Motown founder with a combination of hard-nosed determination and personal pathos -- though the former rings more accurately in his performance.
Ultimately, somewhere between the Four Tops-Temptations "battle" that opens the show and the closing rendition of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," it's easy to get lost in the songs and enjoy the moments of Motown's triumphs and tragedies in that melodic context. "You built a legacy of love," Nicholas Christopher's Smokey Robinson tells Oliver's Gordy late in the show, and "Motown The Musical" serves that legacy with equal affection.
Motown The Musical
Now through Nov. 16
Fisher Theatre in the Fisher Building, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Tickets are $39-$130
Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com
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