The story of Motown Records is a rich and important one. It’s not only the rags-to-riches story of a record label that rose out of inner-city Detroit to become a cornerstone in the foundation of postwar American music, but one in which a body of work created by African American artists became a bellwether of the nascent civil rights movement, helping move the needle on race relations in dramatic and constructive ways.
It’s a shame so little of the power and resonance of that story finds meaningful expression in “Motown: The Musical,” the Broadway show that opened its Los Angeles run on Thursday at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, a virtual stone’s throw from where the company shifted its headquarters as its success and influence blossomed nearly half a century ago.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Motown: The Musical”: In the May 2 Calendar section, a review of the Los Angeles premiere of “Motown: The Musical” misidentified the actor portraying young Michael Jackson as Reed L. Shannon. He is played by Leon Outlaw Jr. Also, the song “Dancing in the Streets” was recorded by Martha Reeves, not Mary Wells, and a piece of dialogue attributed to Berry Gordy Jr.'s sister, Anna, was spoken by the character of another sister, Esther.
Instead, the book — by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who was on hand for Thursday’s premiere performance — too often invokes TV sitcom-level bromides. At one point Gordy’s mother, Esther (played by Ashley Tamar Davis), admonishes him, “You’re a 29-year-old man — you’ve been a failure at everything!” Star Julius Thomas III shoots back, “I could be 29, 39 or 49: I’m never going to give up on my dream!”
Primarily, of course, this is a jukebox musical packed with more than 40 of the timeless pop and R&B hits that Gordy and his Motown associates cooked up and placed consistently on the pop sales charts: “My Girl,” “Baby Love,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “I Want You Back” — all of which can be found in sterling original versions in a Motown Records box set being sold in the Pantages’ lobby.
There’s no denying the appeal and importance of the deep Motown repertoire, delivered in a serviceable, energetic fashion by the earnest and vocally gifted cast, with standouts such as Leon Outlaw Jr. as a young Michael Jackson.
But the reductio ad absurdum plot and dialogue make it a tough ride for anyone hoping for a bit of bona fide cultural illumination to go with their entertainment. The sociopolitical context consists of the usual film clips from the period — the Vietnam War and civil rights movement backdrop, the shocking news of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the first manned moon landing. Stephen Sondheim has demonstrated time and again it’s possible to combine music with fresh and revelatory stories.
Letting the music speak for itself would make a more convincing — and consistently rewarding — night at the theater than the forced empathy with Berry’s struggles, first to bring his dream to fruition then watching that dream go up in smoke as times change and many of the artists he nurtured moved on to other record labels.
Just witnessing the remarkable two-decade evolution of the infectious Motown sound — from the first hit with Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” to Martha Reeves’ infectious call for communal celebration “Dancing in the Streets” and the romantic desperation in the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving” on through the social awareness of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” ultimately fully manifesting in Stevie Wonder’s extraordinary 1970s music — would carry a far more persuasive message than this show’s stilted commentary.
There’s also the central love story between Gordy and Supremes singer Diana Ross — her voice thin and nasal (attributes that co-star Allison Semmes nails perfectly), the Supremes’ signature songs melodically catchy but consistently polished free of the soulfulness of many of their label mates’ best performances.
The emphasis on the Gordy-Ross romance unnecessarily narrows the bandwidth of what could be a much broader-reaching tale of African American empowerment in the business world, the tension between commercial success and artistic integrity (hinted at in one exchange between Gordy and an increasingly ambitious Marvin Gaye, played by Jarran Muse) and the dynamics of one man’s vision flowering into what would become a $100-million company.
As Gordy’s best friend, singer, songwriter, bandleader and producer William “Smokey” Robinson, Jesse Nager captures Robinson’s high, fine-sandpaper tenor, but the man Bob Dylan once called “America’s greatest living poet” is often relegated to providing comic relief as the melodramatic plot thickens.
The show’s large cast is employed generously, many doubling, or tripling, as members of the Contours, Four Tops, Temptations, Miracles, Jackson 5, Commodores and other players from the extended Motown family.
For the casual listener, most of the musical performances will be acceptable; less so for serious Motown fans. The pit orchestra, under musical director Darryl Archibald, often sounds more Sin City than Motor City, providing almost everything with Vegas gloss and a relentless rock backbeat.
Surprisingly, some of the singers also miss the mark, sometimes just by millimeters, but as Mark Twain observed, that’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
The show’s real find is Outlaw as Michael Jackson, fronting the family act that gave Motown a much-needed Adrenalin boost in 1970. Outlaw channels the tone, electric energy and crisp phrasing of the young Michael, making his performances effervescent highlights in this packed jukebox.
After the feel-good finale on opening night, the real-life Gordy — who also is one of the show’s producers, along with Sony Music Chairman Doug Morris and Broadway veteran Kevin McCollum — took the stage to a standing ovation, beaming a broad smile and displaying a few deft dance steps of his own.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright made a well-intentioned speech connecting Gaye’s sociopolitical masterpiece “What’s Goin’ On” to racial tensions still flaring across the country today.
“We have to handle this with art,” Randolph-Wright said, “because art can heal, art can change.”
Valuable words, which would have carried greater impact had they followed a more convincing example of artistry than “Motown: The Musical.”
For the record
12:52 p.m., May 2: In earlier versions of this post, the actor portraying young Michael Jackson in “Motown: The Musical” was misidentified as Reed L. Shannon. The role is played by Leon Outlaw Jr. Also, the song “Dancing in the Streets” was misattributed to Mary Wells. It was recorded by Martha Reeves. And a piece of dialogue spoken by the character of Berry Gordy Jr.'s sister Esther was misattributed to his sister Anna. A previous correction misidentified Esther as Gordy’s mother.