In one of the most revealing lines of Berry Gordy's “Motown the Musical,” the legendary founder of Motown Records gets some advice from a lawyer. Unchallenged perceptions, he's told, have a way of becoming reality.
When it comes to the backstory of the greatest record label of all time — and, truly, what other label had the cultural import of Motown, or ever could again? — then perceptions have been shaped by the musical and movie “Dreamgirls,” and by scores of narratives by people who either were never there in that Hitsville U.S.A. house on West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, or were around Gordy for only a fraction of the multiple decades of Motown influence. I don't use that term lightly. Motown artists capable of reaching global fame just kept on coming: The Marvelettes. Martha Reeves. Gladys Knight. Marvin Gaye. Diana Ross. The Jackson 5. Stevie Wonder. To name a fraction of the crew. You can be 40 or 70, born black in Birmingham, Ala., or white in Birmingham, England, and still view Motown as having recorded the entire soundtrack of your youth.
That phenomenal reach, a consequence of Berry's nose for young talent, his ear for a hit and his powers of persuasion when it came to charming the mostly white establishment he needed to move his records, explains why “Motown the Musical” has been a solid hit on Broadway (more with audiences than critics) for more than a year and now has launched a first-class national tour, which opened at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago on Thursday night. Both Gordy and his good pal Smokey Robinson were in attendance. At the end of the night, Gordy praised Chicago for being a town where good things always had happened to him, an affection already clear from Gordy's book, with its references to WVON radio and Chicago's premiere lyrical spot in “Dancing in the Streets,” which the cast exploited and the opening-night crowd fully appreciated.
For Gordy, who now is a very spry 84-year-old, “Motown the Musical” (which was adapted by Berry from his own narrative history of the label) clearly was a chance to take control of his story, as well as to showcase close to 60 songs from the Motown catalog. That's too many, really, for a 21/2 hour show and it allows hardly any time for any them to be performed in full, let alone be allowed to breathe a little. For Berry, it likely was like choosing between beloved children.
The problem with telling your own story is the problem that afflicts “Motown the Musical,” even though Gordy, now played by Clifton Oliver, clearly tried to express his own flaws, including an awkward scene where he tries and fails to make adequate love to Allison Semmes' Diana Ross. It is hard to put yourself in meaningful context, especially if you are as significant a figure as Gordy. We tend to remember the little things, rather than the bigger picture. In general, the show makes the mistake of focusing too much on the business side of the label and not enough on the actual creative process. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” avoids that problem, but then that show only deals with a small number of creative figures. Gordy dealt with enough artists to pack the Oriental Theatre and he clearly wanted them all in his show. And their songs. Blink in the middle of some, and you'll miss ‘em.
Of course, if you were standing where Gordy was standing all those years, the exit of your stars for more lucrative deals with bigger labels must have felt like the sky was falling down. The reality, though, is that listeners follow artists, not labels. Even if a Diana Ross or a Marvin Gaye went elsewhere, they still were Motown in the public's mind. The money, the politics, the lawyers don't matter to most Motown fans and don't make great theater, especially if you don't have a narrative taste for scandal or retribution, as the genial, forgiving Berry clearly does not, at this juncture. What matters are the Motown songs.
The songs are why most people are coming for a glamorous downtown night out and they are performed with style, panache and elegant choreography from Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, often a precise re-creation of signature Motown moves. I didn't like the way “Motown the Musical” keeps interrupting those great numbers for uninteresting backstory scenes when I first saw this show in New York, and I don't like that any more now. (“Sing it Diana,” someone shouted Thursday, even as she barely got out any of the “Theme from Mahogany”). As far as I can tell, the script has not changed in any meaningful way from the Broadway production. It still sometimes fights the song.
The touring cast certainly is the equal of the one in New York, although different figures now stand out. I was most taken with Jarran Muse, a soulful Marvin Gaye, and Nicholas Christopher, a dead ringer for Smokey Robinson, a perception that I checked when the real, time-cheating star appeared on stage at the curtain call, looking like the younger actor's slightly older brother. Semmes is charming and promising, although a work in progress when it comes to exuding the confidence of a star of Ross' wattage. Oliver is honest and vocally precise, although he also needs to bulk up his performance a tad to anchor the show. Some of the Jackson material needs work on pitch. Elijah Ahmad Lewis, the very talented ensemble member who plays Stevie Wonder, deserves bigger billing. So do plenty of others in the very talented union ensemble (a lot of roles in this show are billed as ensemble roles but demand lots of solo singing).
The main difference from New York is the physical production. Much of the scenery was left in New York, which generally is a cause for complaint from me, but not at all in this case. On Broadway — just prior to opening at least — the show felt visually chaotic. Not any more. I wouldn't say David Korins' set has acquired any great new metaphors, but the simpler touring production is a much, much better match for the material, which never needed huge physical structures. Natasha Katz's lighting pops much better in this touring incarnation and, most importantly of all, the director Charles Randolph-Wright feels far more in control of the production, theatrically, visually and in the other ways that matter. On balance, this is the better of the two versions of this show I've seen, although I bet they've settled in now more on Broadway.
I still wish Gordy had lingered more on his music and explored the how and the why of how it changed the fabric of so many lives. I wish he'd not rushed through explaining his genius, although I think that might well have meant giving up the control he wanted. And I wish he had lingered more in his beloved Detroit, the city that gave its most talented young people to Motown and yet fell apart even as Motown rose. Enough. There is no bitterness about Motown leaving Detroit in that town; when this show heads there, there will be some dancing in the streets, I suspect. Good for Gordy for bringing all these songs home.
When: Through Aug. 9
Where: The Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $30-$138; 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun