Review: 'Motown' musical big on songs, light story
This theater image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows, from left, Sydney Morton as Forence Ballard, Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross and Ariana DeBose as Mary Wilson of The Supremes in "Motown: The Musical," performing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — There are 36 songs in the new Broadway show "Motown: The Musical." Actually, that's just in the first act — 36 songs, not including a reprise of "You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You." It's like a jukebox went completely haywire.
To be sure, the songs are probably the best America has ever produced: "War," ''What's Going On?" ''My Girl," ''You've Really Got a Hold on Me," ''Dancing in the Streets" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." But, still, 36? In comparison, "The Book of Mormon" has what now seems like a stingy 16 songs in total.
The 2½-hour show, about Motown Records under founder Berry Gordy, opened Sunday at The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre completely unbalanced: The songs are staggering, the book utterly flimsy.
Both are due to one man: Gordy, who clearly knows what makes an indelible hit song, but also has an inability to write objectively about that skill. As the book writer, Gordy comes across almost divine, a true visionary who literally changed the world and race relations but was eventually abandoned by the artists he made stars when they sought to cash in. There are parts of the show that even a North Korean dictator would find excessively flattering.
Using a total of 59 songs or snippets of songs — not counting a tiny amount of the theme from the film "Mahogany" — Gordy tells the story of how his Motown empire rose and fell and then rose again.
This theater image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows, Saycon Sengbloh as Martha Reeves, center, in "Motown: The Musical," performing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus)
"You built a legacy of love," he makes Smokey Robinson say, admiringly.
The story begins and ends in 1983 — Motown's 25th anniversary — and is a celebration of an independent record company as much as one of Gordy. Why 1983? It neatly avoids mention of the sale of Motown in 1988.
The irony is that despite having a war chest of songs, Gordy has co-written (with Michael Lovesmith) four new ones to drive home plot points. They're pretty good, especially "It's What's in the Groove That Counts" and "Can I Close the Door."
Charles Randolph-Wright proves a director with real skill, able to seamlessly juggle an insane amount of songs, dozens of scenes and harness some quite stunning performances, led by a go-for-it Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy and Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross, who especially shines during an ad lib moment with the audience.
Other standouts include Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson, Saycon Sengbloh as Martha Reeves and Bryan Terrell Clark as Marvin Gaye. Raymond Luke Jr. — one of two boys taking turns playing the roles of young Gordy, young Stevie Wonder and a preteen Michael Jackson — was astounding and got one preview crowd thoroughly jazzed.