"Motown the Musical," a hearty, hefty celebration of Berry Gordy and the downright revolutionary record label he built from scratch, reached Baltimore this week. From the sound of things opening night, the show has really got a hold on the Hippodrome Theatre.
Anyone who grew up in the age of Motown, or around people who did, will find it hard to resist this faithful recreation of the stars launched by Gordy and all those solid gold records — dozens of songs, whole or abridged, are packed into the infectious, nostalgia-prompting score.
If your idea of a musical includes a well-structured plot with lots of character development and clarity of detail, you may end up just a little less satisfied.
Gordy, who wrote the book for this show based on his 1994 memoir, covers a lot of ground here, from his humble roots in Detroit through Motown's extraordinary success, the company's move to Los Angeles and the departure of several Motown artists for greener pastures. His romantic relationship with Diana Ross along the way gets attention, too, if superficially.
But all of the narrative incidents fly by at an almost dizzying clip, leaving some characters barely sketched in, some issues barely scratched. And when there is dialogue, a fair amount of it seems to have been manufactured in Cliche City, redeemed only by the actors' flair for animating even the weakest lines.
The most serious turns in the musical touch on changes in the country and in Motown products as the civil rights movement, urban unrest and Vietnam War protests intensified. It would be interesting to encounter a show that focused more substantively on this social-conscious aspect of Motown's legacy, but there's only time for a taste here.
It's possible to quibble with the song list, and with the handful of forgettable new items written for the show.
But, in the end, such qualms don't linger long. When all is sung and danced, what counts is all that is sung and danced. A terrific cast, fluently directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and backed by a sterling band of 16 players guided by Darryl Archibald, makes this dynamic hit-parade a guiltless pleasure.
Chester Gregory impresses as Gordy, with especially keen instincts for the dry humor that peppers show, and he brings a firm, stirring voice to the music.
Allison Semmes inhabits the role of Diana Ross so effortlessly — in speech, song and gesture (complete with perfect hair-tosses) — that you have no trouble imagining the real deal in the house. That's especially so during the "Reach Out and Touch" segment that, of course, includes audience interaction.
With the slightest turn of his head or twist of his torso, Jesse Nager commands attention as Smokey Robinson.
Another dynamic vocalist, Jarran Muse, beautifully captures the transformation of Marvin Gaye into a moody soul concerned about injustice and "trigger-happy police" (one of several moments when the present world slips into this show about the past).
J.J. Batteast wins over the house instantly as a young, blissfully pre-eccentric Michael Jackson. And the rest of the large, well-honed ensemble reveals remarkable skill at quickly delineating a whole bunch of vivid characters.
The slick scenic design by David Korins conjures up time and place neatly; the sets for the psychedelic years are especially fun. Esosa's costumes are attentive to period detail at every turn, right down to Michael Jackson's perky hat.