Tuesday, October 6, 2015


No, this is not a review of the Spike Lee film, Mo Better Blues

It is a review of Motown the Musical.

I think in the past I made a distinction between a stage musical and musical review. (Were you paying attention? Clearly I was not, otherwise I would remember) A stage musical is a story told in music and dance, usually original music and dance, like Les Miz or Chicago or Kinky Boots

A musical review is a showcase of established songs strung together with minimal story telling. The stage version of Buddy Holly was like that, the second act was pretty much a Buddy Holly tribute concert

I would never see Rain, the long running Beatles tribute but I very much enjoyed Backbeat, a musical that the Stu Sutcliffe story with, of course, Beatles songs It was a musical, Rain is a musical review

When I first heard about Motown the Musical I very much feared that it would be a musical review. It is not, it is a musical, and overall an effective one. But it poses some challenges.

First of all there's the music itself. Iconic, classic, so well known most of it, these days, provide the backdrop for TV commercials. We all know this music, every song, every melody

Then there are the artists. Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five: Icons, legends, voices still heard sometimes decades after their deaths

Take for instance the Temptations, a group of guys with perfect harmony and slickly developed dance moves whose musical style continuously morphed over time. Get up there, sing those iconic songs and dance your ass off ... yeh, no challenge there

Overall the actors of Motown the Musical are up to the challenge. The Temptations were, indeed, very effective. As was Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye. Besides capturing that voice, Muse was given to meat to work with as Gaye attempted to sell Motown's first protest album, the now classic What's Going On. His apace version of Mercy Me raised the hair on my arms.

As Diana Ross, Allison Semmes has the entire diva attitude nailed perfectly, even as the teenage Diana she allows you to see the strength and determination that would, in time, morph into a kind of stubborn bitchiness. Diana's is a difficult voice to capture in a stage production, at first hearing fragile and whips but capable of soaring power. Overall, Semmes is able to capture it though when fronting the Supremes it sometimes gets lost

Special mention must be made of Nathaniel Cullors; a very young man who is tasked with performing the young Stevie Wonder and the young Michael Jackson. Yeh, no big deal at ... well it wasn't for Mr Cullors. His Jackson is a show stealer, he has the voice down perfectly and his dancing left me exhausted just watching

The show's best voice, though, ironically belongs to the character who was not a singer. Josh Tower's Barry Gordy is the heart of the story. We first meet the founder of Motown Records in 1985 as ABC is preparing to air a live concert event commemorating the 25th anniversary of his record company. He does want to attend and through flashbacks we learn his story and the story of Motown

Barry Gordy was a songwriter and early on he sings some classics-to-be and we first here Tower's voice. It is a superb musical theatre voice, capable of expressing the nuances of emotion in the song. Besides Motown standards, the Gordy character sings original songs to motivate the story.

There's a bit of rub here: In a show filled with classic songs we are now treated to originals. Such was the case in the stage version of Wizard of Oz, sandwiched around Over the Rainbow and Yellow Brick Road we had several original tunes whose duty was to move along the story. It comes across as being a bit awkward. In Motown, Tower's voice and performance are strong enough to make it work

The story of Motown is a fascinating one and not just as a tale of a man with no musical background who built up one of the greatest musical entities of all time. As time goes on and the society of the US begins to change, as race relations and the war in Vietnam fill the evening news, Motown had to change with it. The play does not shy away from these issues. A group of Black Power protesters serve up Edwin Starr's War (What is it good for) and it is indeed a spine tingling moment

There is a lot of story here that lifts it above the musical revue category: Barry's relationship with Diana Ross, his struggle to keep the artists whose careers when built from leaving the company, the pressure place upon him as one of the most successful black businessmen of his time. Through it all, through most of it, Smokey Robinson is Barry's right hand man, as powerful a relationship as the one he has with Ross

Like a musical revue the show ends with a concert, the Motown Anniversary show. It works though, the entire story leads us up to this point as Gordy is acknowledged not only by the artists he helped make into superstars but also buy a public who, at that point, probably were not truly aware of who this man was and what he had created

So, the show is indeed Mo, as in Motown. Is it better? Better than the original? No, of course it isn't how could it be. The music that came out of Motown was some of the greatest popular music ever created. Sitting there I did not think that I was actually watching Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells but I was still very very happy to watch the actors portraying them

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