On opening night of Motown the Musical at the Orpheum Theatre, the last show I had witnessed at the Orpheum was Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which hit Minneapolis just as the jury verdict hit Ferguson. With unfortunate timing to boot, White Christmas had lived up to its name. I was ready for a more colorful show. I was not disappointed.
Motown (slang for “Motor Town”, a nickname for Detroit) the Musical follows Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, from his childhood in 1938 to the record company’s 25th anniversary in 1983. Founded in 1959, when radio stations segregated their music by the color of the musicians’ skin, Motown Records strategically broadcasted the works of musicians of color to increasingly mainstream audiences, becoming the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement. 25 years of Motown is presented onstage, and along the way we witness the progression of the Civil Rights Movement, the impact of Motown music on segregation and racism, and the beginnings of artists Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and many more.
Motown the Musical opens with a bang–literally–and moves on like a freight train with occasional slowdowns for romantic interludes. Sixty songs are performed at least partially in the space of approximately three hours along with plot and character development, yet somehow the show does not feel rushed. Standout performers were Reed L. Shannon as Young Michael Jackson, and Allison Semmes, who could easily convince people that she is actually Diana Ross. However, regardless of his acting prowess, I felt that Julius Thomas III (Berry Gordy)’s vocal talents did not measure up to those of his castmates. The energy of the entire cast fueled an already excited audience, and by the end of Act Two, the theatre was ready to explode.
Walking into the theatre, I had considered myself relatively uneducated about the music of Motown. While watching the show, I realized that I had previously heard the majority of songs performed, but had sadly had no idea that they were originally performed by musicians of color, let alone that they would be considered “Motown”.
I did not grow up with Motown music or its historical context. After watching Motown the Musical, I feel much more educated and understanding of Motown music, the Civil Rights Movement, and their interweaving pasts. A demonstrative example of this history is the Act One finale, a performance of “What’s Going On?” set against the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., which gave grave meaning and context to a song that I had heard many times before but never fully understood, and a time period for which I was not alive. Theatre like this is so important to me because, as a high school student, I could never have garnered this form of education from reading a textbook.
My parting sentiment is this: Whether you grew up with Motown Records, grooving to Motown oldies on the radio, or have never heard a Motown song in your entire life, brave the cold and go see Motown the Musical this holiday season. You’ll dance out of the theatre with a little more love in your heart and a whole new view of music on your mind.