Theater review: ‘Motown: The Musical’ at Dr. Phillips Center



“Jukebox” musicals (as shows assembled from previously published songs are known) don’t have the most consistent critical reputation, but Motown: The Musical comes to Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center from Broadway with two advantages to set it apart from the pack. First, rather than relying on the output of a single artist or songwriter, Motown draws from the entire catalog of the legendary label, which includes many of the biggest pop and soul hits of the 20th century. Second, instead of hanging those songs on a plot formed from fluffy fiction (like Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages, and many others), Motown attempts to tell the true story of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and his company’s tempestuous first quarter-century.

That combination has the potential to produce Detroit’s answer to Jersey Boys, and director Charles Randolph-Wright makes some effort to follow in the footsteps of Des McAnuff’s Tony-winning hit, especially in the way his blocking smoothly transitions through the years with the assistance of David Korins’ iris-like sliding scenery and Daniel Brodie’s pop-influenced projections. The score certainly has the strength to carry the evening, packed with Top 40 favorites from four decades, starting with early-'60s chart toppers like “Dancing in the Street” and “Get Ready,” continuing through '70s protest anthems like “War” and “What’s Going On,” and ending with '70s funk favorites “Brick House” and “Super Freak.” Each hit is edited down to little more than a verse and chorus, but is dynamically delivered with Ethan Popp’s authentic orchestrations by conductor Darryl Archibald’s powerful 15-piece pit band.

But it is the cast that makes these iconic songs soar, impersonating inimitable musicians with an accuracy that easily exceeds most “Legends in Concert”-style tribute shows. Jesse Nager (founder of the Broadway Boys, who headlined Mad Cow’s Cabaret Festival half a decade ago) gives the night’s best performance as a wide-eyed, soft-spoken Smokey Robinson. He’s matched by Allison Semmes as Diana Ross, who charmingly captures the diva’s stage presence in an adorably overlong audience participation segment, and Jarran Muse’s achingly empathetic Marvin Gaye. Leon Outlaw, Jr. (alternating with Reed L. Shannon) was the audience favorite as a charismatic young Michael Jackson, and Martina Sykes and Elijah Ahmad Lewis make big impressions in their brief turns as Mary Wells and Stevie Wonder, respectively.

Unfortunately, it’s the man at the musical’s center who ironically impedes this show from reaching its full potential. Clifton Oliver has the singing voice and physicality to adequately embody Berry Gordy, but his sing-song interpretation of the man’s speaking voice comes across as affected. More crucially, we never get beneath Gordy’s self-consciously styled exterior, thanks to the barely-there book by Gordy himself, based on his self-penned hagiography. The clunky dialogue never clues us into Gordy’s motivation beyond a childish desire to “be the best me I can be,” while his failures – from his apolitical attitude toward the Black Power movement to long-running lawsuits over his exploitation of artists – are simply played for laughs or dismissed as libel. (Interesting, only the handful of forgettable new tunes written for the show by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith have author credits listed in the program, with the songwriters of the 50-plus genuine classics reduced to being listed as “courtesy of Sony/ATV publishing.”)

With a more objective script and improved sound design (this is the first show I’ve seen at Dr. Phillips that sounded simply awful, with tons of microphone feedback and instrumentals often overwhelming vocals), Motown could have gone toe to toe with Jersey Boys. As is, it’s a fantastically fun concert featuring some of the best-loved songs from the past 50 years. But you’ll have to rely on the music to move you, because Berry’s self-serving BS barely has a heartbeat.

Motown: The Musical 
through Sunday, March 15
Walt Disney Theater, Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

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