The odd problem with “Motown: The Musical” is that it appears to have it all — a score mostly made up of enduring hits, an incredibly talented cast and what should be a great American success story — yet it is lacking.
It never catches fire because the dialog is so stilted and the book is so heavy-handed it feels as if the big boss imposed only his ideas and no one would dare question anything.
Given that this is the story of Berry Gordy and he wrote it, that makes sense.
His is a terrific story and as the founder of Motown, it was his vision, ear and abilities that crafted the careers of The Jackson 5 (before Michael Jackson was a solo act) Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, the Four Tops and many more.
Collectively these songs have likely started more parties and kept people on the dance floor than any others. When the show sticks to Motown hits, it soars because there’s great energy and these songs remain terrific fun.
Still, Broadway arrangements can be schmaltzy for R & B, and the songs are truncated which is a necessity considering there are 57 numbers in the musical. Yes, that is shocking, but rechecking the “Playbill” twice, the total is indeed 57.
The new songs, which Gordy and Michael Lovesmith wrote for this production, do not mesh with the Motown favorites.
It’s a familiar story, at least to those who have followed Gordy and his deserved success. The stage is crowded with people who sound like Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae, “The Book of Mormon” “One Life to Live”), Smokey Robinson (Carl Brown, Broadway’s “Sister Act”) and Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark, “CSI: NY”).
Raymond Luke Jr., who plays a young Gordy and Michael Jackson is a terrific talent. And Brandon Victor Dixon (Broadway’s “The Color Purple” “The Good Wife”) is excellent as an intense Berry.
The show bookends with Motown’s 25th Anniversary celebration, and how Gordy doesn’t even want to attend the gala because so many of his stars have left him for more money elsewhere. The show then goes back in time to tell Gordy’s story, from when he was a boy, listening on the radio the Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling match in 1938.
His story is told against America’s history. Gordy tries to convince white deejays to play black artists, whose music was then called race music. The play touches on President Kennedy’s and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassinations, the Vietnam War and the Detroit riots.
There is the affair between Ross and Gordy who was close to twice her age when they became involved. The scene where he has troubles in bed and she launches into “I Hear a Symphony” could be used as a primer in how not to lead into a musical number.
Lousy writing and some wooden performances – only when speaking, never while singing — mar what should be an electric experience. None of this will keep away dedicated Motown fans, who were applauding as soon as the overture started. They know every note of every song, and admittedly, I am among them.
Like so many who grew up with Motown, I not only have them on my iPod, but kept my vinyl, even that of The Temptations singing “Fiddler in the Roof” tunes. Really.
Happily those were not included in the score at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
But even the title is not thought out enough: “Motown: The Musical” — what else could Motown ever be?