Theater Review: ‘Motown: The Musical,’ Berry Gordy’s Story

April 15th, 2013

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

One of the more than 50 musical numbers from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in “Motown: The Musical,” with a book by the Motown chief, Berry Gordy, and playing at the Lunt-Fontanne.

The hit parade reels on seemingly forever in “Motown: The Musical,” a dramatically slapdash but musically vibrant trip back to the glory days of Detroit, where the vinyl pouring out of an unassuming two-story house took the world by storm, all but paving the city’s streets with gold records.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Motown: The Musical, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, features, from left, Jawan M. Jackson, Ephraim M. Sykes, Julius Thomas III, Donald Webber Jr. and Jesse Nager as the Temptations, one of many acts whose hits made history on the label run by Berry Gordy.

Before we’ve even settled in our seats, we’re being dazzled by a sing-off between the Four Tops and the Temptations. Gladys Knight and the Pips and Marvin Gaye later tear into their dueling versions of the enduring classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” (Don’t make me choose, please: I couldn’t live without either.) Snapping their fingers and smoothly wriggling their hips, Diana Ross and the Supremes bop through several of their ear-tickling hits.

There’s Smokey Robinson, too, and Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, and Mary Wells. Something close to rapture spreads through the audience when a magical little dynamo, the young Michael Jackson, takes the stage, spinning like a tiny top and singing with a grown man’s soul in his little boy’s voice box.

These performers are obviously not appearing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, where Broadway’s latest jukebox musical opened Sunday night. Instead, their indelible styles are being effectively recreated by a blazing cast of gifted singers impersonating this crowded pantheon of pop-chart immortals. Our tour guide on this busy joy ride through the Motor City of the late 1960s and ’70s, and the show’s principal character, is Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. Mr. Gordy wrote the book for the musical (adapted from his 1994 autobiography), and his recollections of the era and the artists he discovered form the shaky scaffolding for a musical that is, if nothing else, an efficient endorphin-delivery system for baby boomers.

The story begins at the end, in 1983, when a television special celebrating the Motown legacy is being prepared as a disgruntled Berry (Brandon Victor Dixon) broods in his Los Angeles home, waffling about whether to participate. He’s bruised by the company’s decline, which has been hastened by the departure of many acts he discovered, groomed and elevated into stardom. A few left lawsuits behind as parting gifts. (Although Berry mostly comes across as a heroic figure bordering on saintly, to Mr. Gordy’s credit — and that of the show’s script consultants, David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan — his conflicts with various artists are not entirely scrubbed from this unofficial record.)

The musical, mechanically directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, then flashes back to the beginnings, when a young Berry — Junior to his large, loyal and loving family — is casting about for a career. A brief stab at boxing fizzles (cuing one of the show’s few — and unfortunate — original songs), and soon Berry is calling on his family’s money to back his dream of creating a record company. He’s already written and sold a couple of songs to Jackie Wilson (a funny Eric LaJuan Summers), but only by owning publishing rights and producing records can real money be made.

More than 50 songs (!) are performed in “Motown,” usually, alas, in truncated versions. Most are simply presented as concert versions by the actors playing the artists who made them famous, but a few are shoehorned awkwardly into the story as “book” songs.

Sometimes the fit seems right, as when Berry serenades his family to the tune of “Money (That’s What I Want),” best known in the Beatles version. Elsewhere, the fit is forced, if not ludicrous. “You’re All I Need to Get By” is performed by Mr. Dixon’s Berry as a duet with Diana Ross (a silky Valisia LeKae) in which they pledge their love. (Never mind that it was recorded by Gaye and Tammi Terrell.) Stranger still, after Diana and Berry are found in bed after an unsuccessful attempt at lovemaking, she leaps up and begins singing “I Hear a Symphony.” It’s like a parody of a Viagra commercial.

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