Was the Motown era before your time? No problem. For those of us who didn’t get a chance to live through this portion of our nation’s history, Motown the Musical provides an astoundingly realistic depiction sure to transport any viewer to this defining period.
Based on the book by Barry Gordy Jr., this production is a reflection on the roots and legacy of Motown music. It follows Gordy through his successes and struggles as he breaks barriers and demonstrates the power behind music in his establishment of the Motown label. Major emerging stars including Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5 as well as many other groups and their hits led his work to be invaluable for a generation restricted by racial divides. With explicit historical context it outlines difficulties faced within communities and in the music business while effectively bringing a lighter approach to heavy topics.
No audience member will be left behind in this celebration of the music that transformed America. Throughout the duration, the seamless, high-energy progression kept an excited audience clapping and dancing in the Orpheum seats. Familiar tunes like “ABC”, “My Girl” and “Dancing in the Streets” provoked hugely enthusiastic responses. The orchestra was outstanding and consistently strong with an especially notable brass section. Featuring over 40 songs from the era, vocals of the entire cast were outstanding along with the choreography, but no one stole the show like Reed L. Shannon and his unbelievable vocal imitation of a young Michael Jackson. Julius Thomas III playing Barry Gordy cannot be overlooked as the driving force throughout. Associate costume designers Cathy Parrott and Sara Sophia Lidz adequately answered the call for complex costuming in this show in the conception of bright, time-appropriate costumes from afro to bell bottom.
A weak point in this strong show, and notable break in progression came during an awkward invitation for crowd participants to sing with Diana Ross as she entered the audience during “Reach out and Touch”. This unpredictable element could certainly be eliminated. A later obligation to actually “reach out and touch” the hand of our neighbor (during flu season I might add) and sway preceded to draw out the song further. This instance though, could not long stop the momentum of the performance.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright should be praised for this compilation and the show’s ability to bring radical issues of the past, and some of which exist today, to color. For many viewers it served a very realistic memoir, for others, a learning experience.
Motown is here to win over the hearts of all its viewers, just as the music won over listeners in the time it emerged. It gives a justice to its developing roots one can’t help but appreciate. Motown the Musical is definitely a must see that will doubtlessly leave you wanting to go back. It runs December 16th-28th at the Orpheum in Minneapolis.