Encore Michigan

‘Motown: The Musical’ returns to Motown with gusto

Review April 21, 2017 Frank Anthony Polito

DETROIT, Mich.–If there’s one show to see at the Fisher Theatre this season, make it Motown: The Musical. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, Motown tells the true story of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, and his journey from featherweight boxer to the heavyweight music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and many, many more.

At the center is our hero, Berry Gordy, played by powerhouse performer Chester Gregory, a native of Gary, Indiana, who credits the late, great Michael Jackson for his own musical pursuits. Gregory carries much of the production, appearing in almost every scene, and his moments are at their strongest once he is paired with the vivacious Allison Semmes as Diana Ross. Because the real-life Gordy appeared behind-the-scenes for much of his music industry career, it’s not easy to compare Gregory to his offstage personae, as one is sure to do whenever any of the production’s actors embodies a legendary character. In the case of Ms. Semmes, her Diana Ross is spot-on. She’s got the big eyes, and the (eventual) big hair, but it’s her soft, breathy voice and beautiful smile that really sell her as the songstress.

Other memorable performers in the twenty-plus member ensemble include Jarran Muse as a sexy Marvin Gaye, and David Kaverman as Gordy’s longtime friend, Smokey Robinson.

Featuring more than 50 classic hits including “My Girl” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” some reviewers have criticized the show for its truncated soundtrack, and the way that many of the tunes are performed in a concert-like style. But the quick pace of presenting snippets of song after song after song serves the story well. In fact, Gordy credits his business model for Motown to his days spent working in the auto industry, and the way he cranked out the hits was nothing short of an assembly line. And where most “jukebox” musicals suffer by taking an already known song and forcing it into the structure of the story, Motown does a fantastic job by making it seem as if the scene served as the inspiration for the song.

Design-wise, it’s the scenery and costumes that really standout and sparkle in this show. Scenic designer David Korins not only uses physical set pieces, but also smartly incorporates digitally-projected backdrops, allowing for ease and speed in telling a story that spans over 40 years. “Project Runway” finalist Emilio Sosa, designing under the name ESosa, is responsible for the multitude of period costumes, including looks that are exact replicas of outfits worn by Gordy, Ross and Gaye on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special from 1983, and the purple fringe vest and hat worn by a pre-teen Michael Jackson.

But what makes Motown: The Musical so terrific is the fact that it’s being performed right in Motown. From lights up to curtain down, the Detroit audience attending the production this past Wednesday night savored every single moment, repeatedly erupting into thunderous applause — and not just after the musical numbers. Early on, Berry Gordy ponders what he should name his new record label. Humorously, he tosses about some suggestions to his pal Smokey, as the audience cries out in anticipation: “Motown!” The minute Mr. Gordy is left alone onstage with Ms. Ross, the audience snickers as they know the sparks are about to fly between them. It’s these “inside” moments that Detroiters will immediately recognize and truly appreciate. One can safely assume seeing Motown: The Musical anywhere else in the world, while it may make for an enjoyable evening, will not be the same experience as it will be right here in the Motor City.

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