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"Pride & Joy" brings Marvin Gaye back to life again at the Fisher Theatre
Marvin Gaye's life was as messy as his music was magnificent.
And "Pride & Joy: The Marvin Gaye Musical" -- now at Detroit's Fisher Theatre after premiering in the Motown legend's native Washington D.C. -- follows suit.
The best news is that the show scores where it counts -- with the music. Jarran Muse as Gaye circa 1960-70 and Chae Stephen from 1970 on are both spectacular, bolstered by 15 of Gaye's Motown favorites (plus 1982's "Sexual Healing") that each delivers with a confident assurance that hews strikingly close to the original recordings. Their performances are smooth and transportive, bringing Gaye, at least as a singer, back to life 35 years after he was fatally shot by his father, and in the year he would have turned 80.
The rest of "Pride & Joy's" cast is just as good. Krystal Drake as Gaye's first wife Anna (Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.'s sister) is limited and certainly eclipsed by the Gaye specter but holds her own in belting out Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" and dueting with Stephen on "My Mistake." Tony Grant is a powerhouse as Gaye wingman Motown executive Harvey Fuqua and others, including a Teddy Pendergrass, while Justin Reynolds and Kourtney Lenton convincingly channel Smokey Robinson and Tammi Terrell, respectively.
The inclusion of the Originals' "Baby I'm For Real," written by the Gayes, is a nice nod to deeper Motown history. And a couple of gospel numbers -- Muse, Grant, Drake and Detroit native Kourtney "NuNu" Thurman as Gwen Gordy doing "His Eye is on the Sparrow" and Muse, Grant, Reynolds and co-writer D'Extra Wiley teaming up for "I Surrender All" -- are showstoppers that had the Fisher crowd shouting like it was in church.
Performances like that can cover any number of sins -- which are unfortunately abundant in "Pride & Joy's" script. Conceived by Marvin Gaye III, the idea of examining the complex relationship between Gaye and Anna, a Motown executive who helped shape his career, is ambitious and tricky. Their story is, to the public at least, a sidebar, albeit an important one, in the Gaye legend, with soaring highs and deep, troubling lows. "Pride & Joy" hints at both directions but misses the nuances and doesn't flesh out its characters -- particularly Anna. Seventeen Gaye's senior, we're introduced to her counting cash in the Flame Show Bar but her sharp business acumen and heady drive are largely unseen and only hinted at in asides during the rest of the show.
Similarly, Gaye's dark side -- insecurities, drug abuse, depression, a volatile second marriage (to Janis Hunter) -- is given short shrift, making for awkward and unexplained chapters in the show. After the couple warmly reunites for the 25th Annual Grammy Awards in 1983, where Gaye won two R&B trophies for "Sexual Healing," Stephen's Gaye abruptly breaks off and leaves, ostensibly to go and help his mother, leaving both Anna and the audience confused.
The cursory portrayals extend to a practically non-existent Berry Gordy (Bryce Pinchum), whose own relationship with Gaye is just as crucial but is limited to a telephone exchange about the landmark "What's Going On" album. Random moments outside the Motown universe -- Chubby Checker doing "The Twist," the Emotions performing "Best of My Love," the Pendergrass segment -- are speed bumps that divert from the story without adding appreciable context. The section on Terrell's decline and death goes on a bit too long without a real sense of her relationship with Gaye, while his murder, an unavoidable downer at the end of the show, feels clumsy and tentative.
Ultimately "Pride & Joy" comes off as a show that's trying to straddle a line between joyful jukebox musical and insightful character study, and between being about Gaye and his career or about the relationship of a musical power couple. The lines too often feel like vehicles to take the show from one musical number to another.
But those songs, and their performances -- from "Hitchhike" and "Pride & Joy" to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," "What's Going On," "Let's Get It On" and more -- are really, well, what's going on in "Pride & Joy." Gaye is sadly not with us anymore, but the show lets us spend some valuable time with him, in spirit if not in body.
"Pride & Joy: The Marvin Gaye Musical" runs through June 2 at the Fisher Theatre 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. $55 and up. 313-872-1000 or broadwayindetroit.
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