Though it's a tall order, MOTOWN ultimately succeeds
Motor City has absolutely come to Music City with the sweet sounds of Motown: The Musical, running this week at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. With a cast of incredibly talented vocalists bringing the sounds of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and so many more, it’s a guaranteed darn-near perfect night out.
Motown: The Musical is the life story of iconic music producer Barry Gordy, founder of Motown Records. It follows his life from seeing Joe Louis defeat Max Schmeling in 1938 to the twenty-five year reunion show of all the Motown hit recording artists back in one venue in 1983. With a list of nearly sixty songs, the musical packs as many Motown hits as humanly possible into a three hour performance.
Starting off on a good note, the cast was wonderful. In a show about music as iconic as Motown, your cast truly has to be a full of triple threats. The ambitious amount of showmanship was quite notable. The cast also has to be incredibly versatile in their acting, some members playing six or seven roles. Tears flowed freely at the end of the first act when they portrayed the events occurring in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The anger in brokenness translated and hit the audience like a ton of bricks.
The costuming was on point. There wasn’t a time when the main actors didn’t look exactly perfect. From Diana’s amazing gowns to Marvin Gaye’s transition from suits to hippy duds, everyone looked magnificent. The amount of costume changes some of the cast members had to go through truly meant everyone had to bring their ‘A-game’ to make it as seamless as possible. Mesmerizing was Diana’s red tulle gown she tore away to reveal a slimming beautiful red gown underneath. It would have made Deception, Nashville’s Favorite Barbie, proud. Everyone always looked wonderful, so kudos to a talented costuming department.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of slight issues with the show.
Telling an entire man’s life and how he came up with something as huge as Motown is a long story. Telling it in three hours with a fifteen minute intermission is almost a bastardization of the story itself, giving the musical a Cliff Notes feel to Gordy’s life work. It’s such a huge story to tell. When the writers try to pay attention to detail, it makes it seem strange. The scene when Gordy and Diana Ross are intimate for the first time provides an awkward laugh, but feels like it could have been left out. The writers pay attention to things that, while were likely important to Mr. Gordy, are unimportant and rambling. Time would have been better spent on the story of how Gordy actually discovered these acts and made them as competitive as they were instead of making them appear to have fallen out of the sky. Maybe the actual creative process would have been a better use of time. While the love story of Diana and Barry was lovely, it received far too much of the show time. A sentiment one must imagine was probably told to Mr. Gordy when the two were actually together.
The only other irking thing was a lack of character identification. With the actors playing so many parts, coupled with the fact so many people are not as well versed in the performers of Motown so much as the music itself, it became befuddling identifying which actors were playing what particular role at a given time. Some of these songs have been recorded and made hits for several different artists. The version of “I Heard It through the Grapevine” that some may be familiar with was sung by men. In this telling, a woman had the first hit with it. That may be the case historically, but it wasn’t very clear which female artist was even being portrayed on stage, because the actress doing the portrayal was playing several other roles.
Motown had several group acts, so many that most audience members will have a hard time keeping track of which group is which during the show. At one point, there were names of groups on a screen during a mashup, but it was only during one particular scene. The way the set was designed, it wouldn’t have been inconvenient to show which band was which to maintain some semblance of continuity, but it was not done. It’s an easy fix that would have been a nice addition to the show to make the story clearer.
All in all, there was a lot to love about this show. Even if you can’t remember who recorded “I Heard It through the Grapevine” the way you remember it, the show still sounds great. You’re still going to lip synch and shimmy in your chair. You’ll like the brief audience participation. You will be dazzled by the dancing and singing. It’s a show that is definitely worth seeing, even with the minor shortcomings.
If you like the music of Motown or music from that era at all, you’ll appreciate this show. It’s not perfect, but it’s very worthwhile and has its place. Motown: the Musical runs through Sunday.