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Cool “Motown the musical” rocks the State Theatre

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

The State Theatre in PlayhouseSquare is rocking.  Rocking with sounds of the likes of Diana Ross, The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.  Rocking with a full orchestra, a visually stimulating electronically enhanced production, and the story of Berry Gordy.

Berry Gordy, who is the central character of “Motown The Musical parlayed a loan of $800 into a mega-million musical composing, recording and producing business.  Gordy not only influenced the musical sounds, but found the entertainers who transformed America’s musical tastes, played a role in the civil rights movement, and helped hone an identity for black entertainers.  He did this in an era of segregation, white disc jockeys not willing to play “black” music, and the KKK on the march.

“Motown” is a jukebox musical.  It has a book which surrounds Motown’s catalog of hits.  It is based on Gordy’s autobiography “To Be Loved:  The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.”

The book for the show, which was written by Gordy, takes a journey from 1938, in the Gordy family home in Detroit, Michigan, to 1983 in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where an event is being held to celebrate the stars, hits and success of Motown.  The success which, between 1961 and 1971, had 163 singles in “Billboard Magazine’s Top 20,” including 28 songs that reached number one.  It was the most successful business owned and operated by an African American in the United States.

The musical premiered on Broadway in April, 2013.  Though the cast and the music was praised by critics, the script was generally called “light weight.”  The show went on to garner four Tony nominations, but none were for the book.

With choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, and directing by Charles Randolph-Wright, the touring show, even with its one and a-half hour first act, zips right along.  The full orchestra, under the baton Darryl Archibald, blasts away, creating the right sounds, even if some of the older ears in the audience may have felt bombarded by the volume.  More than one person was seen popping in ear plugs while others were pulling out their hearing aids.

The show is all about music.  And, fear not that this is a touring production, the voices are superb, and the acting is right on target.

Some of the songs from the past, reproduced here, are “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “My Girl,” “What’s Going On?,” “My Guy,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Do You Love Me?,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I‘m Yours.”

Clifton Oliver creates a Berry Gordy who is completely believable.  His ups, his downs are all fully developed.  Allison Semmes is Diana Ross.  Ross, Gordy’s lover.  Ross, the Supreme’s front lady. Ross, The Diva.

Nicholas Christopher as Smokey Robinson and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye are character correct.  Those old enough to have experienced Ed Sullivan were delighted by Doug Storm’s imitation of the crossed arms, over-articulating host of the top rated Sunday night TV variety show.  A show which bannered many of Motown’s biggest stars.

The rest of the huge cast, often playing various roles, were all excellent.  The vocal sounds and the blendings were all music to the ears.

Davis Korins’ scenic design, consisting mostly of a series of vertical and horizontal beams, which often slid into various configurations, and cleverly designed projections by Daniel Brodie, framed and illustrated the action.  The time sequences were illustrated by pictures and films, including Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his murder, the Dallas assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the slaying of his brother Bobby.  Freedom Marches, civil unrest, and the wars, were all vividly projected.

Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams created dynamic choreography which not only duplicated the moves of the boy and girl groups, but also set the right tone for the time period.  Esosa’s costumes were not only era, but character, correct.

Capsule judgment: If you like the Motown sound, dynamic singing, and a good history lesson, MOTOWN THE MUSICAL will be your “thing.”  It was definitely my thing!  As the silver-haired lady, standing several rows in front of me, jumping up and down and waving her hands from side-to-side, kept yelling during the curtain call, “That was cool!”

“MOTOWN THE MUSICAL,” a part of the Key Bank Broadway Series, the show runs through October 19 at the State Theatre.