The best thing about the Broadway show Motown: The Musical, now playing at D.C.’s National Theatre, isn’t hearing songs from the iconic label’s songbook from the label’s era under Berry Gordy’s ownership from 1959-1983. Rather, it’s in the power of the songs being able to parallel the story of the label exec’s life to a tale of aspiration that’s easy-to-understand not just for African-Americans, but for all races, makes the musical significant. In understanding and appreciating the nuances of the uniquely American story and legacy of struggle and hustle, the musical excels.
Foremost, last Wednesday’s event had not only Gordy himself present for the proceedings, but also there was one-time The Apprentice star and current socialite Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth. The moment when “ultra-diva of the 1970s” era Diana Ross (as brilliantly portrayed by Alison Semmes) sings her 1970-released debut solo single “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand,” the fact that she asked for the audience to participate in singing and “Omarosa from Youngstown, Ohio” stood with “Diana” and sang drove home Motown The Musical‘s point about showcasing the best of the American aspirational spirit. Similar to Omarosa’s run on The Apprentice, 1970s era Diana was often lampooned for the refined and (quite possibly deserved due to professional success) regal-esque air of her presentation. It was an unexpected moment, but yet still one that nevertheless drove home the creative goal of the musical itself.
Insofar as the play itself, it’s a dizzying mix of stories drawn from Gordy’s 1995 published autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, alongside precision recreations of the iconic choreography attached to Motown songs from The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations and more. As well, there’s period-aware clothing and hairstyles assisting the legendary Motown sound to set the mood. On the surface, this makes the musical little more than a modern-era take on the label’s 1962 “Motortown Revue.” And, if you just like hearing pop songs from Jackie Wilson’s 1959 smash “Lonely Teardrops” (not released by Motown, but written by Gordy) to Rick James’ 1981 hit “Super Freak” (yes, definitely a Motown single) from a four decade period where one label redefined the definition of “race music” into “crossover” pop, this is amazing. However, if wanting more, it’s in patiently letting the music die down and following along with the plot that much more is gained from Motown The Musical.
The three key players in the musical are Berry Gordy, singer/songwriter/executive Smokey Robinson and impressionable chanteuse/Gordy’s beau/iconic pop culture superstar Diana Ross.
Seasoned veteran of stage and screen Josh Tower plays Gordy, and in his ability to create a pronounced sense of empathy, pathos and dramatic intrigue in the story of a groundbreaking record executive, he impresses. More key than anything else to the ultimate success of Motown The Musical is that the person playing Gordy has to add a human dimension to the story of a person who has been venerated to super-human legend status while still alive. In pulling down Gordy’s soul from the shelf and imparting into it fear, hope, lust and a brazen desire to excel as none ever excelled prior to him, it’s quite the difficult undertaking. However, Tower pulls off the immense task required by the role, much to the overall success of the musical.
Tower-as-Gordy’s ability to relate to Jesse Nager’s falsetto voiced Smokey Robinson and to Allison Semmes as Motown franchise player Ross drive Motown The Musical‘s success, too. Nager plays Smoky Robinson as a perfect second-fiddle to Gordy who always keeps the executive grounded and aware of his initial goals in starting the label, but yet also remaining aware of the level of success that the label has reached, too. There’s a point where Gordy is considering not attending the label’s 25th Anniversary concert that serves as a label reunion, and Nager’s performance hits another level as he emphatically tells Gordy, “you’re wrong, Berry!” In playing the role a step behind Tower’s strong, steady lead, it’s as if Nager’s Robinson finally rises up and in one second takes a modicum of complete control. The moment drives home a plot turn that elicited a huge ovation from the audience, and also showcases a moment when the world knows that the best response is to be one’s best and most humble self.
Allison Semmes’ Diana Ross emerges — as Ross did on Motown in reality — from being a kewpie doll bit-player to professionally driven, emotionally bare and physically alluring superstar. The singer’s relationship with Berry Gordy is the stuff of much legend and intrigue. For soul music fans and tabloid aficionados, the way in which Gordy and Ross (or cutely “black” and “black,” their empowered pet names for each other) coyly, then quite brazenly relate in the musical answers so many questions regarding one of pop music’s favorite reasons for intrigue. By the time that Ross leaves Motown for a $20 million deal from RCA Records, she’s separated from Gordy, who’s also seeing Motown’s heyday as a label appearing to be growing further away from sight in his rear-view mirror. The notion of heartbreak and ultimately, human bravery conveyed by the scene is significant.
Bit players portray numerous roles in the musical. Given just how many acts and how many songs were part of the Motown canon, it’s a sensible concept. Yes, little Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye have static characters in Motown The Musical, as both performers are needed for huge points of both performance excellence and plot development, too. Jarran Muse’s portrayal of Gaye-as-Motown’s social consciousness is important. Yes, while the reach of Motown The Musical is to make a universal point, Motown was still America’s most groundbreaking black-run musical label ever, so to not tell the story without a nod to the civil rights movement feels disingenuous. As well, a Motown musical without Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 performing “The Love You Save,” “ABC” and “Who’s Loving You” feels like a waste. In these two characters in particular bringing these moments to the stage, it packs a potent punch that puts Motown The Musical over-the-top.
In short, to make a series of terrible puns, one could easily expect to cry “The Tears of a Clown” if they don’t see “The Happening” that is Motown The Musical. In covering everything from “War” to “Baby Love” and even allowing those in the audience to “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand,” the musical has a universal appeal. Turning the National Theater from performance venue to “Psychedelic Shack,” a mood, vibe and feel are evoked that don’t just reflect great songs or an iconic music man. Rather, in raising up the life of Berry Gordy to a study in uniquely American excellence, it achieves much more.