"Motown: The Musical" uses all the elements of theater at its disposal to tell the history of how the Motown Record Company and some of its biggest songs came to be: glitzy costumes, catchy well-known tunes, big, moving stage pieces, animated and live action projections, breaking the fourth wall, and real moments from history.
The story of Motown founder Berry Gordy and the rise of his acclaimed recording studio opens with a flashy number where The Temptations and The Four Tops are battling it out for the microphone -- and the audience's affection -- in an energetic medley. Only when a producer interrupts the performance do we learn the year is 1983, and the groups are rehearsing for a 25th anniversary celebration of Motown's opening, taking place that evening. The problem is friends and colleagues can't seem to convince a reluctant and bitter Gordy (Chester Gregory) to attend.
‘Motown: The Musical’
WHEN — 1:30 & 7 p.m. today; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 & 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville
COST — $43-$92
INFO — 443-5600, waltonartscenter.com
BONUS -- Read the preview story for What's Up with Chester Gregory here.
Flash back to Gordy's early days in Detroit and his realization he wants to start his own record label. He writes songs for Jackie Wilson, meets Smokey Robinson and buys the house in Detroit that would become Hitsville U.S.A. The opening night audience at the Walton Arts Center on Tuesday voiced their excitement and recognition for each famous face to appear and for the opening bars of many of the unmistakable songs -- and at more than 50 tunes or snippets of Motown hits, that's a lot!
The mostly full house seemed more apprehensive, though, each time the characters broke the fourth wall and tried to elicit a response mid-song. "Motown" definitely has a narrative, a love story, drama and character development, but with the exception of a handful of numbers, the music serves itself more than to move the plot forward, making it feel like a concert. Especially in the moments the characters prompt clapping, sing-alongs or, in the case of Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), leaving the stage and actually speaking with the audience.
Though Gregory discussed some of the racial struggles and moments of historical significance Gordy and the artists experienced during the late '60s in our preview interview, I forgot that part as the first act bounced along quickly through scenes and songs -- feelings of triumph as significant African-American musicians found their voices and were building something that would come to change the world. When the show shifts -- recalling the race riots, war and turmoil of the times -- it's a powerful moment followed by moving reactions from the characters. I have goosebumps again just thinking back on it.
I'm not sure this was everyone's experience, but I have to say there were a handful of instances during the musical numbers where I couldn't hear the lead singers -- mainly in the big, exciting anthems, but not exclusively. Whether this was due to the music being provided by a live band (whose funky and dynamic playing does provide an energy to the show I doubt could be accomplished with recorded music) or because some songs had a large backing chorus, I don't know. I just know that throughout both acts, I lost the lead singers' words a few times.
Besides that small anomaly (which could have just been me) the singing was, as one would hope, electric. Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye had one of my favorite voices in the cast; he's pure silk. David Kaverman's Smokey Robinson is a joy. But Gregory is rightfully in the starring role as Gordy if for no other reason than his breathtaking performance of one of the new songs written for the show, "Can I Close the Door." Literally. I was holding my breath.
NAN What's Up on 06/29/2017
Print Headline: 'Motown' Loud And Proud at Walton Arts Center