Berry Gordy’s “Motown the Musical” is a rare mix of merriment and poignancy, full of wit and history. Cutting between fantastic musical numbers and hard-hitting scenes reminding us about racial tension during the motown period, the musical tells the story of Berry Gordy (Julius Thomas III) and the rise of Motown Records from 1938 to the 1980’s. The history aspect of the show was interesting and added more dimension to the plot. The whole show was very interactive- from audience members cheering when a familiar name or band was brought up to a moment when volunteers from the audience sang along to “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”
The cast was amazing- Allison Semmes played an almost freakishly accurate Diana Ross, right down to the way she moved. Superstars who would have caused an uproar if they had been cast badly — Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye and a young Michael Jackson — were all cast to a tee. I was particularly worried about Michael Jackson’s character because he had such a distinctive and beautiful voice, but the actor, Reed L. Shannon, was impeccable.
This show is especially important right now- in light of Ferguson and riots around police brutality and racial profiling, Motown is an imperative reminder of how bad racial issues used to be, how far we have come, and why we can’t continue to let our progress deteriorate. A heartbreaking moment between Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse) and Berry Gordy shows Gaye struggling to break into music about activism. When he sings a section of “Inner City Blues,” the line “Trigger happy policing, Panic is spreading” stood out. As soon as it was sung, you could hear a collective gasp in the audience as it resonated with them, reminding everyone that if we’re not careful, history will continue to repeat itself.
Despite its triumphs, Motown did have a few issues, mostly technically. In the beginning the orchestra was too loud and you couldn’t hear what was happening on stage, and the microphones noticeably changed volume a few times throughout the show, although this wasn’t too disruptive. The first act was really long and there were a few spots when you thought the intermission was going to happen but it didn’t, which ended up feeling tedious after a while. Another issue was that “My Girl” was out of key, particularly in the beginning, which was a letdown because it is such an iconic song.
Luckily, the set and other technical aspects of the show made up for this. The set itself was amazing, with tons of lighting effects and moving projector screens and backdrops that really added to the overall atmosphere of the show. The costumes were gorgeous and appropriate for the time period, adding to the show without overwhelming the characters.
If you have the chance, go see Motown. Sure, it may be a little long but the wonderful music and energetic performances by the cast make up for that. At a time when world crisis are happening left and right, Motown is a must-see.