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MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour
Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) & Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson) of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Stage Review: Motown: The Musical

The birth of Motown Records comes alive on stage with classic music and a lively stage show. Jeanne Powell has her review.

Jeanne Powell’s Take:
The latest musical to grace the Orpheum Theatre stage in San Francisco is “Motown: The Musical,” with a stellar cast and vibrant live music. On opening night, we even had a surprise appearance by the legendary Berry Gordy himself. (After the San Francisco shows, running until September 28th, the tour moves to other parts of the country, including Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Boston, and more)

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour

(Clockwise; left) Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy, The Temptations and Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5. All photos by Joan Marcus.

Most lovers of urban soul music (or classic rock n’ roll if you prefer) do not plan to travel to the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit, or to hunt through attics and basements for original 45 rpm records from the 1960s, stashed by their parents, or themselves. For the next five weeks, however, music lovers may experience 2-1/2 hours of the “Hitsville U.S.A.” signature sounds, created during the reign of music entrepreneur Gordy Berry at Motown Records.

This musical biography of Gordy and the Motown sound is taken from Gordy’s autobiography: To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. Producers include Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris and Berry Gordy. Charles Randolph-Wright is the director. The excellent choreographers are Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. Rod Harrelson is dance captain, and LaTrisa Harper is assistant dance captain. Ethan Popp handles music supervision and arrangements for the band. Of course, the music and lyrics are from the “legendary Motown catalog.”

In the first few moments, as the audience is dazzled by the opening sequence celebrating the 25th anniversary of Motown Records and its wildly popular sounds, you almost wish you could see Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas, the Commodores, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, the Supremes, the Jackson Five as they were and will remain in our memories. Then the energy, talent and dedication of a superbly talented cast of singers and dancers win you over and you spend the rest of the evening dancing in your chair as you enter the spirit of the musical revue.

As Time magazine said in a 2009 article: “Founded in 1959 … Motown assembled the soul and pop classics that changed America …. Over the next decade, the sheer number of chart-topping artists, musicians and groups produced by Motown defied comprehension …. Throughout the Sixties, Motown produced a catalog of songs that cannot be rivaled.”

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour

(clockwise, right) Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye, Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye & Cast, and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye & Cast. All photos by Joan Marcus.

The stage musical traces the origins of Motown as a family affair, with Berry Gordy the visionary and dreamer while his older sister, Esther Gordy Edwards (1920-2011), functioned as the person grounded in practicality. She even had her younger brother sign an IOU for the $800 family loan needed to start a record company. Esther is credited with saving original documents and memorabilia which became part of the Motown Museum. Ashley Tamar Davis plays Esther Gordy Edwards.

Another dynamic woman who featured in the success of Motown’s collection of talented singing groups was the elegant Maxine Powell (1915-2013). Gordy chose her to educate and enlighten the Motown artists who came from humble beginnings, “diamonds in the rough,” as Maxine styled them. Maxine conducted a finishing school on Motown premises where she emphasized manners and social graces. She also acted as chaperone for the underage performers on tour.

Act One takes us from 1938 (Berry’s childhood) into 1968. Act Two moves from 1968 into 1983. Clearly there are limitations on what can be covered in charting the career of a music legend now in his 80s, and the challenges faced by an all-black music enterprise which became too successful for its own good. Time and circumstances changed the music business and the Motown operation, and these moments are introduced effectively between appropriate musical numbers – racially based urban riots in Detroit, political assassinations of the 1960s, rising expectations from impatient musical groups competing with each other, corporate conglomerates stealing away Gordy’s singers with staggering offers he could not equal — $20 million for Diana Ross’s defection, for example.

Motown: The Musical

The stars of Motown: The Musical: Clifton Oliver (Berry Gordy) and Allison Semmes (Diana Ross).

And you see Berry Gordy (played by Clifton Oliver) change over the years, from a visionary to a music producer with uncanny abilities, to an impresario besotted with the lead singer of the Supremes. You experience Gordy as being reluctant to relinquish control of any aspect of Motown, and the tension produced by such micromanaging, as well as the inevitability that singers would come of age legally and go out on their own.

Broadway producer Kevin McCollum has gone on record as saying that he simply had to wait until Berry Gordy wanted to tell his story in his own way – and that’s why it took years for McCollum to bring the story to the stage.

Highly recommended and well worth experiencing, but do consider bringing earplugs – the sound engineers had the volume on the speakers turned much too high (at least on opening night).

About Jeanne Powell

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Jeanne Powell is a poet and short story writer, who teaches in a summer program for teens. Her most recent books are "My Own Silence" and "Word Dancing," available online and through booksellers. She also hosts spoken word events in San Francisco, and covers cultural happenings for online media.