What did Stevie Wonder ever do to Berry Gordy to merit marginalization in Gordy’s Motown: The Musical?
Wonder, who gave voice to many of the social changes in the country, deserves more stage time. But then, he’s not the only legend to receive footnote status in Gordy’s overstuffed jukebox musical, based on his memoir, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown.
The story begins in 1983, as the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever TV special to commemorate Motown’s 25th year plays in Gordy’s Los Angeles home. Berry is brooding because most of his acts and writers, including Diana Ross, have departed for rival labels. Corporations circle to gobble up a struggling Motown.
Meanwhile, his former prodigy Michael Jackson — by then the world’s biggest pop star on Epic Records — introduced his famed moonwalk on that spectacle during Billie Jean. You won’t see that thriller here. But the Jackson 5 tyke version of Jackson, played on opening night at the Arsht Center by Leon Outlaw Jr., is a vocal dynamo. His performance elicited a rapturous response from the audience.
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Directed by Charles Randoph-Wright at 78-rpm speed as a Ball of Confusion — to quote one of the 59 Motown hits shoehorned into almost three hours — the musical then flashes back to 1938. Gordy, age 8, seeks inspiration from boxer Joe Louis’ victory over German Max Schmeling. Boosted by that major moment for black America, the young Berry declares that he wants to be the next Joe Louis. “Be the best you you can be,” the senior Gordy advises. By 1959, the younger Gordy stamped his place in history by founding Motown in Detroit.
The cast works overtime to please the audience, recreating the time and fashions, and for many boomers Motown will be a wonderful night out. The opening vocal duel between The Temptations and The Four Tops allows for some humor as rivalry was championed by Gordy to breed the best in his artists. “You ain’t too proud to beg, but you’re too old to dance,” a Four Top sniffs at a Tempt.
But most of the script is vinyl LP-thin and too often ignores important contributions (such as that of Lionel Richie, who kept Motown financially solvent in the early ’80s as one of pop music’s most reliable hit-makers).
The cast works overtime to please the audience, recreating the time and fashions, and for many boomers Motown will be a wonderful night out. But most of the script is vinyl LP-thin and too often ignores important contributions.
Wonder, anointed “the 12-year-old genius” on his first live album in 1963, is introduced briefly in the first act when his mother (Loren Lott) demands a washer and a dryer from Gordy for her son’s services. But Wonder doesn’t turn up again until the second act, as an adult in 1980, singing his Happy Birthday tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. (the adult Wonder is played by Elijah Ahmad Lewis, who tosses his cornrows and bounces his head side to side in exaggerated fashion as he sings one of his catchiest if least consequential hits, Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours).
“Damn, our little Stevie, making history,” Berry boasts after the MLK moment, one of the script’s many cornball lines. Treating this story with directives that sound like cruise ship patter (“My dream started long before that”) does a disservice to an independent record company that helped bridge racism and spark cultural change in the turbulent 1960s. Hairspray covered similar territory with considerably more insight.
The oversights could be forgiven more easily if Motown: The Musical wasn’t so busy jamming in such lesser talents as Teena Marie. On the flip side, Diana Ross is overemphasized, played ludicrously as a Betty Boop-like figure by Allison Semmes. The actress is able to approximate Ross’ thin, airy voice on hits like Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand), where she plucks members from the audience to sing a line or two, but she doesn’t capture the icon’s formidable aura.
“I’m the luckiest girl in the world!” Ross squeals when she learns she’s about to become the solo focus of the Supremes after embarking on an affair with Gordy (her eldest daughter Rhonda is a product of that union, but that is not addressed.) Therein lies one of the show’s problems: This Ross is a girl, never a woman, in Gordy’s off-key homage to himself.
The only failing Gordy writes into his portrayal is a bout of impotence the first time he and Ross attempt lovemaking in Paris. “Don’t worry, I get tired, too,” Ross coos, before breaking into a chorus of I Hear a Symphony in bed as Gordy cowers under the covers. The scene plays like a Viagra commercial spoof as written for SNL. Maybe they should have dipped deeper into the Motown catalog for a more telling song. May we suggest Ain’t No Mountain High Enough?
The songs are undeniably irresistible, but be warned: Most are truncated, edited as if by broadaxe, and they often intrude on the storytelling momentum. The unseen orchestra blandly recreates the music with none of the snap of Motown’s famed Funk Brothers musicians. The cast’s vocals — except for Chester Gregory’s Gordy, Outlaw’s Jackson and Martina Syke’s Mary Wells (who enters the stage on a sustained note that sounded like an air raid siren), are merely adequate. None carry the distinctive timbre or charisma of the original Motown stars — which may well be an unfair demand.
But in depicting the characters as goofy caricatures — as Smokey Robinson, Jesse Nager’s helium voice elicited audience chuckles but not in a good way — Gordy risks tarnishing his legacy. Certainly, there’s plenty of nostalgic fun to be had in hearing Motown hits performed live on scenic designer David Korins’ colorful sets. But lovers of great musical theater are advised to heed the hook from one of Gordy-Robinson’s first and best collaborative hits: “You better shop around.”
If you go
What: “Motown the Musical”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 7
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd.
Tickets: $29-$150; arshtcenter.org