When does a jukebox musical become a think-piece?
Already slightly less superficial and magnitudes more entertaining than the bulk of Broadway’s recent jukebox confections, Motown: The Musicaltook on extra resonance during the opening night of its seven-week run at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater. At the curtain call, legendary record mogul Berry Gordy—credited with writing the show’s autobiographical book, and played by a nicely nuanced Clifton Oliver—bounded on stage along with director Charles Randolph-Wright and producer Kevin McCollum.
It was not so much Gordy’s “surprise” appearance that struck a deep emotional chord (He also materialized on opening night at the tour’s Chicago stop), as the parallel Randolph-Wright drew between American society during the civil rights movement—when Motown was at its commercial peak—and today, when race-based rage and violence are erupting in Ferguson, Missouri.
From the stage, the director suggested that the broad appeal of Motown helped build bridges between black and white America. But as Ferguson shows us, there’s a major difference between commercial musical harmony and deep-seated social harmony. Randolph-Wright’s comments simultaneously raise Motown: The Musical‘s aspirational value while undermining the self-satisfied pop kumbaya that the show would like to have audiences humming as they leave the theater.
That said, the humming—and smiling—is inevitable. While the plot of Motown’s history is rendered in cursory shorthand, dozens of instantly recognizable musical numbers—”Shop Around,” “My Guy,” “Stop in the Name of Love” —are delivered with full-throated vocals and physically intense choreography by a cast of over 30, most of whom play multiple roles (Another post-show discussion for intellectually-bent audience members: Consider the meaning of a single black male performer playing a Miracle, a Pip, one of Junior Walker’s All Stars, and Stevie Wonder. Is he a talented actor, a cost-conscious producer’s commodity, a stereotyped signifier, or all of the above?).
Standing out amongst a uniformly top-notch cast were Leon Outlaw, Jr., whose bell-clear voice and remarkable charisma managed to summon the energy of Jackson 5-era Michael Jackson despite a lack of physical resemblance; Allison Semmes, who perfectly nailed Diana Ross’ vocal hesitancies, head movements, and hand gestures while bringing a bit more depth to her singing than the real Ross can muster these days; and Jarron Muse, whose alternately gravelly and reedy take on Marvin Gaye went well beyond imitation, and made one anxious to see him take on a solo recording career.
Beyond Muse’s solos, among the old hits that exuded the most live sizzle were those least associated with Motown: Erick Buckley’s renderings of “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops” (both written by Gordy for Jackie Wilson, pre-Motown) and a four-man performance of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me?” It was as if, in standing slightly outside of the show’s packaged nostalgia, these songs gave the performers freedom to express themselves as well as triggering audience memories.
The kaleidoscopic costume design by Esosa and terrific hair and wig work by Charles G. LaPointe continually delight throughout two and a half hours of near-constant changes. The rest of production’s stagecraft is equally impressive, if not always attractive: The set of Gordy’s ’80s Los Angeles den may be a realistic representation, but its dark wood-paneling and clunky cathode-ray television make you want every scene there to end as quickly as possible. And the gliding illuminated columns that create a series of cinematic transitions throughout the show seem weirdly derivative of the Broadway set for 1981’s Dreamgirls, which—though lacking the hit songs that make this show such a draw—was perhaps a more truthful Motown musical.
But frankly, it’s the weird artistic and social questions raised by Motown: The Musical thatmake it much more interesting and less bland than other recent bio-musicals like Jersey Boys or Beautiful. Who decided that a few of the golden oldies—”Money (That’s What I Want)”, “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “I Hear A Symphony”—should be used as plot-driving book songs while all the rest are delivered as performances? Why is the fourth wall broken for a lengthy audience-participation set-piece about a Diana Ross concert? Did Berry Gordy’s prioritization of commerce versus ethnic heritage set a template for today’s nation of ignorant middle-class white hip hop fans? How was it decided to frame the musical’s flashback plot with Berry Gordy’s reluctance to attend the videotaping of the Motown 25 television special, thus making this production into a nostalgia show about a nostalgia show?
This reviewer departed the Orpheum with toes tapping, fingers snapping, and synapses firing to make sense of the bizarreness. Motown: The Musical is crazy good.
Motown: The Musical
SHN Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco
Through September 28.
Click here for future tour dates and locations.
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.