Motown founder Berry Gordy became known for many things as one of the most important record executives in the world. He possessed a tremendous ear for talent, booking acts such as Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and more. He exhibited great professional drive, having started from nothing to own an empire that extended into filmmaking, too. And, he was very stylistically controlling, creating a Motown sound and aesthetic and leaving little room for argument.
When: Through July 2
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
Based on Gordy’s book “To Be Loved,” the musical tells the story on his dream of creating a record label and the many acts that became part of his client roster. The musical’s first function is to serve as a showcase for the songs released on Motown, many of them tremendous hits and creative masterpieces. And there are three new songs as well, all co-written by Gordy to serve in pivotal moments where something on the Motown label wouldn’t suffice to move the plot. The musical contains 58 songs (yes, 58!), including the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and even Rick James’ “Super Freak.” One of my primary reactions to the musical, in fact, was a renewed conviction I need to buy some more Motown label albums on vinyl. There’s some tremendous work in the catalog.
But it’s utterly impossible to go through that many full songs in a two and half hour performance. Most of the time, Tuesday night’s sell-out-sized crowd got fragments, just enough to peak our interest before flying along to the next. If you walk in to the musical expecting a full performance of something like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” you’ll be disappointed. I understand the desire to offer all the great songs. I also wished longer versions of some of the biggest hits were what we saw instead. It’s a fine line to walk.
The abbreviated versions of the songs fit the aesthetic of the show, however. This is a surface-level take on many of the key plot points in the Motown/Gordy legacy. We learn of Gordy’s on-again, off-again relationship with Supremes frontwoman and eventual solo star Diana Ross (played in this production by Allison Semmes). We don’t learn about the many other relationships in his life. We watch a scene where Marvin Gaye lobbies Gordy (played by Chester Gregory) to release the war protest song “What’s Going On,” and we see Gordy relent after a plea from Gaye (played by Jarran Muse). In the world of “Motown” the musical, all it takes to convince someone to change their mind is a passionate song. We don’t see Gaye’s strike, which found him refusing to do anything else until Gordy relented. Much like the situation with the length of the songs, it would be impossible to cover the full spectrum of Motown’s history in 210 minutes. But it also feels very much like this is Gordy’s take.
Which means we’re left with a thoughtfully staged show with dozens of characters played by ensemble members who take on many roles. Many of the characters have names, but they never stick around for long. Our cue that we’re hearing from someone new often came in the form of costumes. I can’t imagine anyone in this mostly upbeat show had more fun than the costume manager. In addition to the sheer number of costumes was the attention to detail. We close the show at the 1983 celebration in Hollywood marking the 25th anniversary of Motown. Gordy is wearing a bronze suit; Ross is wearing a sparkly top and a black skirt. A video of the actual event plays above the onstage happenings and shows Gordy and Ross in strikingly similar outfits. I don’t know how deep this historical accuracy went. For instance, did Ross really wear that red dress with miles of extra fabric for her solo debut? I don’t know, and I don’t know how to research that tidbit. But I was impressed with the truckload of costumes used in the show and I suspect you will be, too.
Speaking of the Ross character, actress Allison Semmes started her run as Diana on Broadway in 2016 before joining the national tour currently in Fayetteville. She’s great. Gregory is similarly strong-voiced in his take on Gordy. Having two big-voiced leads will carry almost any musical a long way, and “Motown” certainly benefits from excellent performances at the top of the bill. There’s was also a mid-show highlight from CJ Wright, a young actor who played a youthful Michael Jackson as a member of the Jackson 5. It’s easy to have such a performance feel like a perfunctory distraction, but the kid has a voice and the moves to back it up.
“Motown” is not a perfect musical, and Gordy’s life isn’t quite as perfect as we might be led to believe from the storyline posited in it.
But we have the songs to affirm just how much that music mattered, and how a music visionary navigated an ever-changing world.