‘Motown the Musical’ brings to life the glorious story of Detroit’s music dynasty
Hedy Weiss Sun-times THEATER critic May 1, 2014 11:38AM
Some of the biggest hits and the artists who brought them to life are the soul of “Motown the Musical. “ Pictured: Jarran Muse stars as Marvin Gaye. | COPYRIGHT JOAN MARCUS 2014
‘Motown the Musical,’ through Aug. 9, Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. $30-$103. (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com
Updated: May 1, 2014 1:57PM
Once upon a time, in a city named Detroit, a remarkable confluence of musical talent came together under the leadership of a wizard by the name of Berry Gordy Jr. And over the course of the tumultuous, society-altering decade of the 1960s, the universally embraced sound that came to be know as Motown was created.
A fairy tale? Depends on who is telling the story. With the arrival of “Motown The Musical,” the Broadway hit that is kicking off its first national tour at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the narrative comes courtesy of Gordy himself. Rooted in his 1994 memoir, “To Be Loved,” it is meant to be a corrective to “Dreamgirls,” the 1981 Broadway hit that spun a fictional version of the era. But mostly the show is a celebration of the artists he helped shape and market, and the record company that, at its peak, had more than 100 titles hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, and choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, “Motown the Musical” follows Gordy’s journey from featherweight boxer and songwriter to the music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and dozens more. It also captures something about the way the Motown sound intersected so crucially with the Civil Rights Movement, and the dream of crossing racial barriers.
Along the way, this massive jukebox show features more than 50 classic hits, as well as three new songs penned by Gordy, including “the 11 o’clock number” “Can I Close the Door on Love?”
And of course by now it’s a good bet that the very mention of the Motown label has already set you to humming, snapping your fingers and mimicking some distinctive move or other, whether modeled on the easy, sophisticated grace of The Supremes, the cool stepping of The Temptations, the soulful, sexy strut of Marvin Gaye or the irresistible rhythmic dynamism of the Jackson Five.
There is always a sort of alchemy involved in any great cultural phenomenon, this time the British invasion of the 1960s that coincided with the rhythm-and-blues-based crossover sound of the Motor City. But for Gordy, now 84, a key piece of the method and magic he used at Motown was borrowed from the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company.
Gordy, who opened a record store featuring jazz after returning home from the Korean War, briefly took an assembly line job to pay the bills. It was that method of auto construction that he soon realized could also be applied to record production.
“I wanted the same concept for my company — using mass production techniques with artists, songs and records, but not sacrificing artistry,” said Gordy. “Each person on my team had a very specific task. Each song was vetted and ideally engineered. Each artist was groomed and coached.”
The hours were long. The competition was fierce. And Gordy was determined that Motown’s records “had all the polish and slickness and mass appeal of pop music, while holding on to the underlying grit and funkiness of soul music.”
“This is what allowed the records to appeal to black and white audiences,” said Gordy.
An only somewhat less grueling “assembly line” approach has been taken to casting “Motown the Musical.”
“The original Broadway production has already reached the one-year mark, so we have been overseeing the replacements there while also rehearsing for this national tour,” said director Charles Randolph-Wright, who (ironically enough) was part of the original cast of “Dreamgirls” and has worked with Gordy every step of the way on “Motown.” “In addition, we have very young and talented promo teams that travel the country performing a 15-minute set from the show that warms promoters up for the production. So this is another way of developing talent for the show.”
“People all over the world truly have ownership of this music,” said Randolph-Wright, who has a long list of stage, film and television credits.
“And it’s not just baby boomers,” said the director. “The hip-hop generation has sampled so much of the Motown catalogue that you can draw a straight line from Diana Ross to Beyonce. And many young stars grew up listening to their parents and grandparents play this music. The important thing to remember is that when many of the now iconic artists arrived at Motown they were in their teens, and they went on quite a journey. It wasn’t the sort of instantaneous success you see now on reality TV shows.”
What is most important for Randolph-Wright is that his actors “discover who these artists were, but then go on to evoke, rather than mimic them.
“These are not impersonators, though we are all very aware that audiences want to see the iconic stars whose moves and even lighting cues they know inside-out,” said the director. “Plus the costumes do amazing things.”
Playing Diana Ross is Allison Semmes, who grew up in Hyde Park, spent years as part of the Chicago Children’s Choir, headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study opera, but eventually realized she wanted to “make the transition to Broadway.” Originally cast on Broadway as Florence Ballard, a founding member of The Supremes, she also understudied the Ross role.
“Initially I was glued to YouTube, listening for the nuances of her voice and watching her growth from a very young woman to ‘the reign of Diana,’ ” said Semmes, who plays the star from her early teen years to about 1980, and whose small frame is similar to “the itty bitty little thing” Ross was early on. “Putting on those heavy beaded gowns also helps. And I watched her movies, trying to get a sense of her acting choices, trying to capture her essence. I also was also lucky enough to be able to ask Berry Gordy about her, and to see there was still a twinkle in his eyes when he talked about her.”
Clifton Oliver, who played Marvin Gaye in the initial “Motown” workshop, and subsequently joined the cast of “Kinky Boots,” may just have the hardest job in “Motown.” He plays Berry Gordy, moving from the age of 25 to about 50.
“Mr. Gordy is still just a child at heart, a genuinely excited guy,” said Oliver. “He is still so eager to learn, and I’ve watched him just dive into the whole world of musical theater, which is quite new to him.”
“At Motown, Mr. Gordy found a muse and cultivated a star with Diana Ross, and with Marvin Gaye he became the father that man never had,” said Oliver. “But most important of all, he discovered he had the recipe for creating music for the masses.”
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