by Joshua Kahn
Like other LA natives, I grew up listening to K-Earth 101 on countless car rides, raised on the music of Motown and the "Keyes on Van Nuys" jingle. For me and my fellow millennials, the music of Motown has a mythic tinge to it; it seems to have always existed, so deeply is it ingrained in the national psyche.
Motown the Musical, which plays until February 12th at the Pantages Theatre, brings the story of the groundbreaking record company to life, energetically staging several dozen (truncated) Motown classics from the likes of Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and the Jackson 5. Each one of these acts more than warrants a Broadway musical of their own. And, perhaps, that sort of single-topic focus would benefit their stories more than a scattered focus benefits Motown.
Here, our focus is legendary producer/Motown founder Berry Gordy. Motown follows Gordy's life from Detroit ragamuffin to music superstardom through a series of vignettes as he meets his acts, travels on tour, sets up his record studio, and so on, all wrapped around a somewhat flimsy framework of a 25th Anniversary Motown Reunion. Just as the score could be described as "Best of Motown", the book is Berry Gordy's Greatest Hits. Most vignettes are brief, frothy scenes of hard-won success (briskly ushered along by Charles Randolph-Wright's direction) followed by even more scenes of hard-won success. This keeps the proceedings fun and light, but isn't much in the way of drama. Due to the disjointed nature of the story, conflict rarely arises, and, when it does, it is quickly solved before we move on to the next vignette.
The strongest through-line is the relationship between Gordy and Diana Ross (the radiant Allison Semmes) as their relationship grows from producer-artist into something more romantic. But, like the humor and most of the characters, this relationship is rendered in broad, family-friendly strokes. The show is unwilling to grapple with what could be strong sources of conflict, like Gordy's purported unfair business dealings with some of his clients. It's not too surprising these stones are left unturned, considering that the book is written by none other than Mr. Berry Gordy himself. Gordy's onstage alter-ego is a tough-love father figure who almost single-handedly bridged the racial divide in the 1960s. A man whose plentiful virtues outweigh his underdefined faults doesn't make for a particularly dynamic character, but fortunately Chester Gregory finds as many layers as humanly possible in his portrayal of Gordy. A truly magnetic performance that elevates the material.
Though it's billed as being the story of Berry Gordy, his singularly impressive career serves primarily as a delivery system for the iconic music, joyously thrust upon us in euphoric, 60 second chunks. In a sense, it's unfair to ask the show to question the legacy of Motown. This musical is a celebration, pure and simple. When the first notes of classics like "I Hear a Symphony" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" elicit uproarious applause, you know you're doing something right.
Technically, this production is a mixed bag. Emilio Sosa's costumes are colorful, Darryl Archibald's orchestra is full-bodied, but David Korins' scenic design is rather disappointing, continuing the unfortunate (and probably cost-saving) trend of rendering all sets via projections and flying screens.
For those seeking thought-provoking theatre, stop by the Pantages when Hamilton clogs up Hollywood Blvd traffic for 12 weeks this fall. But for those like me who grew up on Motown (and as an introduction to musical theatre for the youngsters out there), you'll be hard pressed to do much better. As the real-life Berry Gordy noted opening night when he took the stage post-curtain call, this music is important. Now so more than ever. So, let's celebrate.
Motown the Musical is playing at the Hollywood Pantages through February 12th.
Get your tickets here.
All photos by Joan Marcus.