Dallas — There is a moment at the top of Act II in Motown the Musical that is the perfect blend of lighting, costumes, vocals and movement. The Temptations are singing their 1971 hit “Ball of Confusion” on a darkly lit stage in stark downlights wearing gray and black suits with a splash of red. The national tour of Motown the Musical, now closing the AT&T Performing Arts Center's 2014-15 Broadway Series at the Winspear Opera House, has several of those moments from a parade of the record label’s biggest stars: Martha & the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, and of course, The Jackson Five and Diana Ross, with and without the Supremes.
Unlike most jukebox musicals, Motown the Musical, isn’t songs arranged into a loose (and often lame) storyline (like Mamma Mia) or a musical revue (Smokey Joe’s Café); it has a story. That is Berry Gordy’s story, based on his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, the hardscrabble rags-to-riches tale of the kid from Detroit who grew up to be the songwriter, music producer, star-maker and record label mogul who founded and ran the influential Motown Records. Gordy also wrote and produced the musical, so it’s no surprise that the story has a definite Berry Gordy slant. Once considered one of the most powerful men in music, Gordy, played with equal parts swaggering bravado and helpless victim by Josh Tower, is portrayed as the benevolent leader, who just wants everyone to be one big happy family, whether he’s discouraging his stars from following their artistic hearts, singling out others to make into mega stars or grossly underpaying his artists, forcing their hand when it comes to accepting lucrative offers from the competition, and then playing the victim.
Gordy’s musical opened on Broadway in April 2013 and earned four Tony Award nominations for leading actress, featured actor, orchestration and sound design. The show ended its run earlier this year, and is scheduled to return to Broadway next summer.
Motown charges onto the stage at breakneck speed with a crowd-pleasing medley with The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” leading the pack. It’s dress rehearsal for a 25th anniversary tribute to Motown and its founder, against Gordy’s wishes, who’s feeling abandoned by the artists he made into stars. Predictably, this provides the springboard for starting at the beginning. What follows is a surface-skimming, and sometimes confusing, look at the making of a record label and the man behind it, including a glossy version of Gordy’s infamous romance with Diana Ross, where once again, Gordy is painted as the victim. There are many times when the dialogue could be trimmed or deleted all together to get back to the music and artists, which is really what the audience wants anyway.
The production is at its best when it’s about the music and the legends who made it. The audience roars when Jesse Nager speaks in Smokey Robinson’s breathy high voice. Martina Sykes blows the roof off as the Queen of Motown, Mary Wells, with a sustained note that goes on for days. The guy groups do their iconic synchronized moves. And Texan Nathaniel Cullors held the Wednesday night audience in the palm of his hand with his portrayal of an eager 11-year-old Michael Jackson performing with his brothers as The Jackson Five, a group Gordy almost passed on because he didn’t want to manage “another kid group” (Cullors alternates in the role with Leon Outlaw, Jr.). That moment and watching the rise of Diana Ross from naive high school student to Gordy's biggest star are two reasons to see Motown.
The other reason is to revisit the Motown catalogue. With 60 songs, including a couple of Motown's later artists, like Rick James and Teena Marie, there's major splash happening on stage in glitzy costumes, shiny suits, bouffant wigs and show-stopping lighting, especially in the eye-popping 1960s portion of the record label's history. The Motown set is constantly in motion, providing a slick backdrop for the performers and the lighting design. Many of Motown's '60s songs carry more impact set against visuals that are reminders of the times: signs that read "Whites Only" and photos of the freedom marches. Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" is especially powerful set in the context of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and the Vietnam War. Gordy tried to dissuade Gaye from doing "protest music" while the world was in turmoil all around them.
Motown the Musical is a worthwhile look back at the music and artists that built a legendary music label. Less worthy is the one-sided, and frequently dull, story of the man behind Motown, which often drags the show down until the next round of musical numbers.
» Read our interview with Nathaniel Cullors