With powerful voices and a rockin’ five-piece pit band, the current show at The Playhouse on Rodney Square is a raucous good time. The show follows the history of the Motown record label from its early precursors in the '50s, growth into a major force in the recording industry and evolution in the face of competition and a changing pop landscape.
Motown’s founder and driving force, Berry Gordy, had a gift for identifying and bringing together musical talent, and carefully managed his artists' public images, making Motown a major national and international success. Eventually, many of Motown’s stars chafed under Gordy’s tight control (or were lured away by bigger paychecks) and the label lost its prominence. But the immense catalogue of nearly 15,000 songs lives on.
I was curious whether MOTOWN: The Musical would follow the jukebox musical format, where well-known songs are woven into the plot narrative. Or, would the songs simply be performed stand alone, as they were in Motown’s heyday. Turns out, it’s a bit of both. The show includes 55 Motown hits.
To squeeze it all in, many are excerpts — snippets long enough to be recognized but not a full song. Often, these are combined into expertly crafted medleys and mash-ups. A highlight is the Jackson 5’s medley, which keeps the audience in anticipation of what’s next.
The show also include three songs written specifically to serve the narrative. Most notable, Kenneth Mosely as Berry Gordy gives a tour de force performance of Can I Close the Door. In this, Gordy struggles to reconcile his disappointment that his stars have deserted him with the knowledge that they still share a great deal of love.
There are a lot of fun and funny moments. Diana Ross (American Idol alum Trenyce) gets the audience singing along with Reach Out and Touch. The developing romance between Ross and Gordy is touchingly sweet. The friendly rivalry between the Temptations and the Four Tops in the opening scene is great fun. And as the young Michael Jackson, the talented Chase Phillips is a delight.
Because Motown had such a deep bench of artists, each ensemble member gets a chance to shine. These include Devin Holloway as Jackie Wilson, Quiana Holmes as Mary Wilson, Erick Patrick as Rick James, and Cartreze Tucker as Stevie Wonder. I must also commend Rob McCaffrey on his hysterical, over-the-top Ed Sullivan.
If I had one quibble, it’d be that reproductions of some of the iconic performances could have been tighter in both vocals and movement. Not that these were not well executed, but it’s hard not to compare to what we’re familiar with from television or YouTube. I also thought juxtaposing the difficulties at Motown with the wrenching societal upheavals of 1968 was a bit heavy-handed.
The costumes by Emilio Sosa — both glamorous stage costumes and everyday wear —effectively evoked the time. And there were a lot of them...the dressers backstage must have been very busy! The action moved seamlessly thanks to moving panels and excellent projection design by Daniel Brodie.
In all, I thoroughly enjoyed MOTOWN: The Musical and highly recommend it. Not just for those of us of a “certain age” who grew up with this music, but also to introduce this great era in music to the younger set.