In a musical that is named after motortowns, finances develop as the main theme
During the musical Motown, now at the Minneapolis Orpheum Theater through December 28, Motown recording legend Berry Gordy recounts his triumph with the Motown record label and success in ushering in a new age of music. Conflict arises when big conglomerates pick off his star artists by giving offers they “can’t refuse” and Gordy faces trouble in his personal life. In a struggle between money and music, this musical features incredible ensemble and solo work that weaves into a stunning theatrical fabric with remarkable strength. Watch as these artists dig to the core of that contagious, distinctive, and dynamic Motown sound.
The talent is impossible to miss in this production. Julius Thomas III (Berry Gordy) outperforms the stars that he hires in the story. His voice forms the bedrock of this musical and Motown could not have chosen a more versatile actor. If in doubt, look to his extensive résumé, which even includes his performance as Donkey in Shrek. Aptly, Thomas’ equal on the stage plays the part of Berry himself, as well as Michael Jackson: Reed L. Shannon. This 13-year-old rocks the stage with an incredible mix of all types of music from pop songs to ballads. This ensemble is distinctly talented, as their celebrity impressions and passionate movement prove. Highlights include Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and the Commodores. During “War,” the actors and choreographer Patricia Wilcox wrapped up years of protesting into an intense bundle of form and dance.
Making a production is a communion between writers and actors. The plot of this story unfolded rapidly, enabling more plot development. However, this script has its limitations. While it is impossible to avoid the name recognition of famous Motown artists, this script edges the boundary of becoming a string of celebrity reenactments. Simple impressions are fun, but detract from the heart of the plot. There were other issues too. In one particularly disturbing moment, Berry Gordy tries to keep singer Marvin Gaye in line. Marvin Gaye snaps back, “I don’t need you to be my dad. I’ve got a dad.” One may remember that Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father in 1984. What was the purpose of this reference to Marvin Gaye’s father? In an otherwise scintillating script, the authors bring up this event for the sole purpose of mentioning it. Each line of dialogue should advance the story, but that does the opposite.
I should clarify: this musical is powerful. I criticize because it is so close to perfection in many ways. It is hard to improve upon Motown music, and it is similarly hard to improve upon Motown: the Musical.
As a final note, one knows that theater is pertinent when its themes appear in real life. This production deals with the battle over music in the age of corporations, an issue that is enshrined, surprisingly, on page 14 of the show’s playbill. Above the entire list of hit songs that defined an era of music, the heading reads, “Motown music courtesy of Sony/ATV Music Publishing.” One music conglomerate now owns the music Berry Gordy fought so hard to protect. The music will never die, but this beautiful show is in more ways than one a reminder of the incredible influence of money on our art.