A Night Well-Spent with Motown: the Musical

By Z. Smith


Broadway’s smash-hit, Motown: the Musical, has come to the Capitol Theatre (running June 28-July 3), and I, along with CATALYST’s Editor, Greta deJong, was lucky enough to attend opening night—what an unforgettable, thrilling, and soulful night it was!

Based, in part, off of To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, an autobiography by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Motown: the Musical begins in 1983 with various and former members of Motown gathering together to celebrate Motown’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Berry Gordy, near the point of selling his label, is reluctant to attend the event and begins to look back on his life; we, as the audience, are led through this life in a series of flashbacks, starting with Gordy’s childhood in Detroit circa 1938, his rise as a song-writer, the formation of the many labels that would eventually form Motown, and the social and political turmoil of the ’50s and ’60s. We eventually return back to 1983, where Gordy has a change of heart and Motown is reunited for one last time.

Though this musical involves recounting important historical settings and situations, it is the people, the characters, and the songs that are this production’s most alluring aspects. In following the story of Motown we find ourselves meeting the now immortalized Diana Ross and her Supremes, Smokey Robinson and his Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Commodores, and Rick James, among many others. And with over 40 songs (some full-length, others as snippets or as part of a medley), Motown: the Musical brings every hit, spanning the label’s first 25 years, to bear. What is unique about this musical’s presentation of the songs, is that they aren’t simply vehicles to push the story forward, nor are they shoe-horned into situations that don’t suit them, no; they are often integrated into the narrative and plot to act as radio, TV, or concert performances from the artists themselves—a fitting move for songs that can and should speak to both the plot and the audience, without sacrificing one for the other.

Beside the music and musical performances being top-notch, every bit the expected Broadway quality (especially the medley of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin on” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” during a scene of political unrest, riots and protests for the Vietnam War), it was the acting that sold these songs and larger than life personas. Chester Gregory gave us a Berry Gordy who is passionate, controlled and commanding in every sense. Diana Ross was portrayed by Allison Semmes, who showed us the evolution of Ross from giggling schoolgirl to fiery goddess of song and stage, without missing a beat of Ross’ complex character. In voice, intonation, movement, and mannerisms, Jesse Nager portrayed a Smokey Robinson who could compete with the man himself. A young Michael Jackson, played by J.J. Batteast, stole the show time and time again, with exquisitely honed signature moves and notes.

The stage was functional and highly versatile. With projection screens in the background and mobile set pieces in the foreground, the stage was able to accommodate both large set arrangements and minimalistic scenes over a bare stage—very pleasing to the eyes in either iteration. Yet it was the group of vertically and horizontally moving beams (think wooden, house frame beams), moving to create different sizes of squares and rectangles, even dividing the stage for certain scenes, pulling focus as necessary, that won me over. The production and set-design teams are to be praised.

Motown: the Musical is the perfect opportunity for different generations to come together and bridge the gap; with a night of story, dance, required (and enjoyable) audience participation, and a soundtrack of everlasting classics, I can’t think of a better time.

My only complaint (and it is a small one) is that there wasn’t enough Rick James, but one car-ride and spin of Street Songs was enough to fix that.

This article was originally published on July 1, 2016.