By Barry Reszel
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr., 84, obviously knows he’s kind of a big deal.
If others didn’t realize this before May 8, when his autobiographical Motown the Musical opened its national tour in Chicago, those in attendance do now.
Because when Gordy and entourage sauntered into the Oriental Theatre at 6:48 pm, all eyes were on him. Well…on him, his best friend and musical legend Smokey Robinson, gospel star BeBe Wynans and the mélange of television cameras, body guards and do-it-themselves-paparazzi desperate for a selfie.
Problem is, curtain was supposed to be at 6:30. (Join in the discussion here.)
But like good fanatics, most of the enthusiastic opening night audience quickly pushed celebrity self-importance to afterthought status once this bright, loud, dazzling production began. Like watching a 45 played at 78 speed, patrons quickly learned Motown is the consummate jukebox musical.
Enrapturing patrons with snippets of 66 musical hits from the most important record label in history, the songs serve as soundtrack for Gordy’s telling of his trek from young Detroit songwriter to arguably the most influential music producer in history. A summary of Gordy’s life story is available here. History of the musical and a list of the songs performed may be read here.
What’s particularly telltale about the man’s rise to fame as leader of Motown Records from its inception in 1959 to its sale to MCA in 1988 for $61 million, is the roster of artists connected to the label. In addition to early members Robinson, Diana Ross, The Jackson Five, Mary Wells, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, among countless others, artists in the 1980s and 90s included Boyz II Men, Queen Latifah, Lionel Richie and more. A full list of Motown artists is found here.
Perhaps that’s the best explanation for the frenetic pace of song pieces in this musical rather than an approach of selecting representative songs in their entirety—there are just too many to choose from.
The good news is that no expense is spared in this first-rate touring production, just a year removed from its Broadway opening (where the show is still going strong). Chicago’s version showcases Clifton Oliver, Allison Semmes, Nicholas Christopher and Jarran Muse perfectly channeling Gordy, Ross, Robinson and Gaye, respectively.
It’s hard to imagine better casting of the production’s leads who, surrounded by a terribly talented ensemble of more than 20, literally have the audience dancing in the aisles. In particular, Semmes’ rendition of Ross’ “Reach out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” one of very few songs sung in its totality, solidifies Motown as part musical theatre, part concert.
It’s easy to wish it was more of the latter, or that the book would offer less sanitized storytelling on Gordy’s part. Indeed, sordid tales of favoritism and lawsuits surrounding the founder and the label abound.
But the adage that it’s the winners of wars who get to write their histories applies here. It’s not insignificant that the winner of this war was a black man who fought it during the civil rights era, either. So if his choice of earned highlights over dirty laundry for his onstage autobiography offends, those offended ought not attend.
And if in addition, wars’ victors earn the spoils, maybe one of Gordy’s spoils is that Broadway in Chicago holds an opening night curtain for a few minutes so that all patrons’ eyes are on his majestic entrance.
Motown performs Tuesday through Saturday evenings and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, through at least August 9 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. Regular ticket prices range from $30-138, plus fees, with higher priced premium tickets available for some performances. Tickets are available at www.BroadwayInChicago.com or by phone at (800) 775-2000.