Motown: The Musical: The Experience

Jen Maciulewicz says this is the most fun she has ever had at Broadway In Richmond. And she has been to a LOT of Broadway in Richmond performances.

Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves and cast in Motown: The Musical First National Tour. (c) Joan Marcus, 2014.

How do you take the history of something as hugely impactful as Motown and condense it into a two-and-a-half-hour musical?

Well, I found out last night at Motown: The Musical, and I must say, I had the most fun I have ever had at a Broadway in Richmond show.

One thing you hardly ever see at a show of this magnitude is audience participation. So when Allison Semmes as Diana Ross, wrapped in a shimmering signature gold gown, came into the audience to choose two members to sing along to “Reach Out and Touch,” I was amazed.

And that’s not the only time the audience is encouraged to clap or sing along during this show. The action frequently takes place during the concerts of legendary Motown artists: The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and The Jackson Five, to name a few. And I was happy I happened to be in a row with people who weren’t afraid to really get into the music, “ABC, easy as 123, so simple as do re mi!”

Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5, Motown: The Musical First National Tour, (c) Joan Marcus, 2014.

Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5, Motown: The Musical First National Tour, (c) Joan Marcus, 2014.

Berry Gordy, played by Chester Gregory, most appropriately wrote the book for Motown. And the story spans decades, starting and ending in 1983 at the record label’s 25-year anniversary show in Pasadena.

In between, Gordy gives insight into the founding of Motown in Detroit, the label’s name being a hybrid of the words “motor” and “town.”

We follow Gordy as his ambition is sparked at a young age after Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling in a racially charged boxing match in 1938, then his founding of Hitsville U.S.A. in 1959, and the label’s eventual move to Los Angeles in 1972.

But it is Gordy’s personal relationships that are the highlight of this story. His close friendship with Smokey Robinson, played brilliantly by Nicholas Ryan, his at times contentious relationship with Marvin Gaye, played by Jarran Muse, and most notably his romance with Diana Ross.

Gordy’s relationship with Ross is something that many are aware of, but don’t know very much about. And this show feels a bit like a love letter to Ross at times, with Gordy even showing us the aftermath of their cringe-worthy and very awkward first sexual encounter. When Semmes and Gregory sing “You’re All I Need To Get By,” it is impossible not to be moved by that moment.

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye in _Motown: The Musical First National Tour, (c) Joan Marcus, 2014

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye in _Motown: The Musical First National Tour, (c) Joan Marcus, 2014

Motown also moves through some major events in U.S. history–the assassinations of J.F.K. and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the Vietnam War. And with segregation still being very prevalent, Gordy masterfully speaks to the racial tensions that plague our history, showing how Motown was integral in breaking down racial walls in popular music.

The technical aspects of this show are breathtaking. The set, designed by David Korins with projection design by Daniel Brodie, often looks and moves like a graphic novel with unbelievably bright pops of color and animation. Peter Hylenski’s sound was on point, which isn’t always the case in the Altria Theater.

Between the gorgeous costumes, by Esosa, and the actors’ amazing vocals, the show served as a real blast from the past for older members of the audience–and an opportunity for this child of the 80s to feel like I was actually witnessing these legendary concerts.

All in all, Motown makes me curious to know more about the label’s history, after I’m finished to binge-watching some classic Motown performances on YouTube.

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Motown: The Musical is playing at the Altria Theater ‪through January 10th. Visit Broadway in Richmond for information and ticket sales. Or call 804.592.3368.‬

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Jen Maciulewicz

Jen Maciulewicz has been a theatre critic in RVA for four-plus years and is currently a member of the Richmond Theatre Critic’s Circle (RTCC). Jen attended VCU’s School of Music. 

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