Motown music would be nothing without love. And a story about Motown would be nothing without lawsuits. To its credit, “Motown: The Musical,” up at Boston’s Opera House through Feb. 15, has both.
This is Berry Gordy’s story – literally, as the Motown founder wrote the book for this musical, which was adapted from his 1994 autobiography. There’s a lot of love in the music – hey, just listen to “My Girl” and the follow-up “My Guy” and try not to feel it – but there is at least an undercurrent of discontent, legal and otherwise, among the people who made the music and those who profited most from it.
It’s a story of songcraft, of empire building, of conflict. But the reason we care is the music: The Motown factory created a brand and made crossover music on a scale America had never seen before. And the best of it has stood the test of time.
Gordy and his savvy collaborators – Smokey Robinson (played by Jesse Nager), the songwriting team Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, and the Funk Brothers house band, among them – built a sound that captivated the country in the mid-late ‘60s and beyond. It was music made by black folks, but intended to reach everyone. And it pretty much did. “Motown: The Musical,” which debuted on Broadway in 2013 and picked up four Tony nominations, should do no different.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright is helming a fast-paced, two act show with multiple scenes, dazzlingly quick change sets and dynamic choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. They’ve got a busy ensemble to work with; actor-singers who play the Four Tops, Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes and many more.
The actor who was to play Gordy, Clifton Oliver, came down with an unexplained illness (he’s out for the run), and was replaced by a spot-on Julius Thomas 3rd. (Thomas was a member of the Broadway ensemble and was understudy for the Gordy role.) He is not listed as an understudy on the Boston Playbill, two other actors are – js His Gordy is a striver and a bit of a schemer-dreamer type, fixated on creating an upbeat sound for “young America.” “Come in an unknown and come out a brand new car, star,” says Gordy, to a singer. (Before Motown, Gordy worked Detroit’s auto line.)
Is it self-serving? To a degree – of course – but there are enough warts exposed to let you in on (a version of the) behind-the-scenes strife between Gordy and his cast of players. As Gordy wrote in his bio, and his company was set up much like his family, with “fierce closeness and fierce competition and constant collaboration.”
There is, also, too much of the up-and-down Gordy-Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) romance, at the expense of, well, more fine music. Ross comes off sympathetically. She’s this powerhouse singer who wants to be a star, yet wants to be loyal to the team and, as much as anything, wants Gordy to pay more attention to her as a person, not as a commodity.
“Motown: The Musical” is bracketed by scenes of Gordy, brooding in his home office, worrying about a lawsuit from his former ace songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland. It’s 1983 and he’s wrestling as to whether he should attend Motown’s 25th Anniversary gala and TV special. Many of the stars in his stable have bolted for greener pastures (major labels like Columbia, RCA and Warner Bros.) and his company may be on the verge of being sold. In between the fretting-at-the-office scenes, we get lots of song and dance. It goes back to Jackie Wilson (Gordy wrote “Reetcq Petite” for him, Gordy’s first break) through leather-clad Rick James and his tongue-flicking “Super Freak.”
“Motown: The Musical” is over 2 ½ hours long and packed with more than 50 songs, a barrage of hits: “Dancing in the Streets,” “What’s Going On,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” Get Ready,” Fingertips (Part 2)” etc. Nearly all these are instantly recognizable – and perfectly executed – but they’re all truncated too. Just as a song gets revved up, it’s, done and we’re back to exposition or another song and group formation. (To be fair, when I saw Motown acts like the Four Tops and Temptations in the ‘80s, they did many a medley, too, which was also frustrating.)
At Wednesday’s show, Leon Outlaw Jr. played young Gordy, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson (he alternates with Reed Lorenzo Shannon) and he brought the house down with “I Want You Back” and “ABC.”
The Temptations’ chaotic, psychedelic “Ball of Confusion” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (voiced by both Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye) get the best rides. The former weaves in and out of turbulent scenes of the troubled late -‘60s (RFK’s assassination, Nixon, the Vietnam War) and the latter serves as sort of motif for the rumor mill that’s always grinding about Gordy and his plans. Edwin Starr’s “War,” with its “What is it good for?/Absolutely, nothing!” refrain remains as trenchant now as it was when it was written.
You’re always aware of the historical backdrop the songs play out against, especially so when Gaye (Jarrancq Muse) is at the mic. Outside of Gordy, he is probably the most fully realized character, as he’s driven to pop stardom by Gordy, but pushed by the world around him to become more of an artist – to not, as he says, “reflect” that world as much as “affect” it: “I want to awaken the minds of mankind.” Gordy protests that he’s always been a father figure to him – Daddy knows best – to which Gaye retorts, “I’ve got a dad.” (That ironic line is left hanging; Gaye was shot and killed by his father in 1984.)
The dialog at times could be a bit clunky – such is the nature of jukebox musicals. Gordy says, “I’m on a roll!” His lawyer: “Not enough to dig us out of this hole.” You could say Stevie Wonder got short shrift. A new song Gordy and Michael Lovesmith wrote, “Can I Close the Door” – sung near the end as Gordy’s debating whether to attend the TV special – is treacly and sub-par. “We’re lyrics in a song/This is where we all belong,” sang Thomas. “You can’t close the door on love.”
But the good parts far outweigh the mediocre. There’s lots of positive vibrations. You’ll exit this show singing a great song. You’ll just have a hard time figuring out which one to choose.