By Martin F. Kohn
The gala opening night of “Motown the Musical” at the Fisher Theatre found Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and other luminaries watching themselves being portrayed onstage. Afterwards all three spoke to the audience, and Wonder even sang a bit of “I Wish.” It was a thrill for first-nighters, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But what about second-nighters, third-nighters and everyone else who catches the touring version of Gordy’s autobiographical musical (still running on Broadway)? Well, prepare to be wowed by reincarnations of the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas and ohmigod, young Reed L. Shannon as 10-year-old Michael Jackson fronting the Jackson 5 in their prime. (Note: Shannon alternates with Leon Outlaw, Jr., no doubt similarly impressive.)
Essentially, “Motown the Musical” is a corporate history with a soundtrack. But what a soundtrack! Come to think of it, what a corporate history: In 1959 Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. borrows $800 from his family to launch his own record company in a house he calls Hitsville USA and more or less changes history.
Gordy literally changes history in “Motown the Musical,” implying that the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the Detroit riots (the riots took place in 1967, the assassination in 1968).
As a playwright, Gordy is a helluva songwriter. Character development is minimal. In terms of story, his accounts of his work with artists like Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye are intriguing, while other artists like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 get a few sentences but plenty of time to perform, and still others – among them, the Temptations, Gladys Knight, the Four Tops – receive time to perform but no story. Much of the narrative is devoted to Gordy’s long romantic relationship with Diana Ross, none of it to his marriages, or hers.
But hey, this is Gordy’s story, as told by Gordy in a show produced by Gordy (and Kevin McCollum and Doug Morris), and he could have called it “Song of Myself” if he’d felt like it and if Walt Whitman hadn’t stolen the title.
Not that it matters a whole lot. Great Motown music is the star of the show: “My Girl,” “My Guy,” “ABC,” “What’s Going On,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Baby Love,” “Shop Around”…the program lists almost 60, and many are necessarily performed in condensed versions or fragments. The show ran three hours on opening night, largely because a long intermission allowed all the VIPs to mingle. A more likely running time would be two hours, 45 minutes.
The songs aren’t the only stars. Clifton Oliver is charismatic as Gordy, and unlike the man himself, “Motown’s” Gordy sings. Allison Semmes captures young Diana Ross in voice and affect. Nicholas Christopher is spot-on as Smokey Robinson, as is Rashad Naylor in a brief turn as Jackie Wilson. Fine, too, are Elijah Ahmad Lewis as Stevie Wonder and Jaran Muse as Marvin Gaye.
A large ensemble does topnotch work as an assortment of performers. Director Charles Randolph-Wright (he also directed the show on Broadway) oversees a striking re-creation of the golden age of Motown, with spot-on vintage choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams; clean, clear and not earsplitting sound by Peter Hylenski (thank you, thank you, thank you; Motown was never about volume), dazzling costumes by Esosa and snappy scenic design by David Korins, and complementary, protean lighting by Natasha Katz.
If you missed the glory days of Motown or want to relive them, now you can, and in a theater a 10-minute walk from where it all happened. Chances like these don’t come along very often.
‘Motown the Musical’
Broadway in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Performs Tuesday-Sunday through Nov. 16. $39-95, 313-872-1000, http://www.broadwayindetroit.com