By Christian Romo
With instantly familiar renditions of beloved artists and songs, “Motown: The Musical” wasted no time reeling in its audience in its opening at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater.
“Motown” tells the story of one of America’s most celebrated companies through the perspective of its founder, Berry Gordy, played by Chester Gregory. After writing hit songs for local acts, Gordy teams up with Smoky Robinson, played by David Kaverman, to start his own record label for black musicians in Detroit. The rest of the show focuses on Gordy’s trials and accomplishments managing Motown, along with his relationship with longtime partner Diana Ross, played expertly by Allison Semmes, filled with snippets of over 60 Motown classics.
Just like in the label’s own discography, the hits in the show are too numerous to count. The show wants you to believe the centerpiece is Gordy’s “Can I Close The Door,” or maybe even the Gordy and Ross duet “You’re All I Need To Get By,” but the real showstoppers come from the Jackson 5. Young C.J. Wright brought the audience to their feet as Michael Jackson with his performance of “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save,” shining as the youngest but brightest star in the ensemble. Other standout performances included Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye performing “Mercy Mercy Me” and “What’s Going On,” the ensemble versions of “War” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and Elijah Ahmad Lewis as Stevie Wonder singing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Anyone listening to the radio anytime in the last fifty years will likely recognize most of these songs, and anyone who purchased one (or many) of Motown’s singles will be flooded with warm nostalgia.
As for the story, there is not much to highlight. “Motown” is essentially a conduit for its songs, which is fair, since they’re some of the best-known songs in the world. But if you’re not a fan of the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, or the Jackson Five, there is not much this show offers that “Dreamgirls” has not already covered. Stories always are an afterthought in jukebox musicals, and this one is particularly bland, but considering the jukebox “Motown” has access to, the flaws in the story easily give way to the brilliant performances of classic songs.
The show presented solid technical accomplishments. Bright lights bounced off glittery sequined dresses with groovy images projected in the background, harking back to a more colorful era in the music industry. The wigs worn by the players stood strong, reflecting a time with more pomp and hair product. Most impressive, however, were the high definition projections, which provided both decoration and reference points to the otherwise minimal set design. Many shows struggle to incorporate projection at all, but “Motown” succeeds in making it the show’s featured set piece.
Towards the end of the show, Semmes enters the crowd for her rendition of Diana Ross’s “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand,” using a clever bit of audience participation to keep us in Ross’s Las Vegas solo debut. It’s not the show’s best performance, but it’s certainly its most uplifting, touching every heart in the crowd as it must have back in 1970. Save for a few well-placed curses, the show is sweet and family friendly, but take note of the three-hour run time. Kids with early bedtimes and anyone with sensitive bladders should make extra preparations.
Though the show is fun, is does not expect a faithful retelling of history. “Motown” takes liberties with its main character’s story, at times feeling more like a cartoon than Berry Gordy’s biography. But if you are looking for great singers taking on Motown’s, and America’s, greatest hits, there is not a better show to watch. “Motown: The Musical” runs at the Pantages Theater until Feb. 12, with tickets available at the Pantages box office or at hollywoodpantages.com.