Nostalgia is the thing that fuels a jukebox musical, whether you’re watching the behind-the-music story of a group (like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys) or listening to some great tunes shoehorned into an unrelated story (the ABBA catalog in Mamma Mia!).
Sure, the cavalcade of hits may be new to younger theater fans, but most of the seats at Motown the Musical are filled by folks who jumped to their feet when Martha Reeves and the Vandellas first delivered an infectious Dancing in the Street. By people who were teens when Diana Ross and the Supremes wondered Where Did Our Love Go. By music lovers who were bowled over when a young Michael Jackson and his brothers declared I Want You Back.
Running through March 8 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Motown the Musical isn’t the story of a group — the Detroit-based recording powerhouse was home to so many artists — but of the man who founded the company in 1959, Berry Gordy Jr. Now 85, the hugely influential Gordy wrote the musical’s book himself, drawing from his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer-songwriter-mogulworked with experienced Broadway hands in putting together the 2013 musical, including director Charles Randolph-Wright and producer Kevin McCollum. But as with many musicals (jukebox or not), the book is the weakest link in a show filled to overflowing with hits.
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Gordy relates his particular American Dream story, bookending it with scenes from Motown’s 25th anniversary extravaganza/reunion at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1983. He races through lots of moments (there’s necessarily picking and choosing when you’re dealing with such a long, celebrity-filled life) but does offer brief insights into the beliefs he brought to Motown, such as “competition breeds champions.”
Eventually, the show becomes the Berry Gordy-Diana Ross love story, as Gordy courts the slender, singular diva he helped make a star. He offers a funny bit of TMI about his, um, nervous failure the first time the two jumped into the sack but passes over other details, such as the fact that he fathered the singer’s eldest daughter. But as noted, there has to be room for songs, and Motown the Musical has dozens of them.
Selling those songs, hitting the nostaglia button just so, is the job of the talented and versatile touring company.
Clifton Oliver has the tough job of playing the man who founded the company and wrote the book. Gordy wasn’t a singer, of course, but he necessarily is in this Gordy-centric piece of musical theater, and Oliver has the voice to deliver the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit You’re All I Need to Get By as a romance-sparking duet with Allison Semmes’ Ross. The actor does tend to mumble some of his dialog, though, a problem when the story is Gordy’s.
Vocally, the show has three standouts. Semmes, a beauty who convincingly evolves from the girl Ross was when she first came to Motown to the diva Gordy envisioned, artfully re-creates Ross’ speaking voice and her oh-so-familiar sound as a singer. Jarran Muse charismatically evokes the many sides of Marvin Gaye, from the sexy heartthrob of his early career to the insightful sociopolitical commentator of What’s Going On. Leon Outlaw Jr., who alternates in the role of young Michael Jackson with Reed L. Shannon, drives the audience crazy by taking it to a time of innocence and promise in the life of the now-lost superstar.
Jesse Nager is an amiable, encouraging Smokey Robinson, though he doesn’t sound a whole lot like the star-songwriter-Gordy pal when he sings. Martina Sykes makes a strong impression as Motown’s first diva, Mary Wells, and Elijah Ahmad Lewis is an appealing Stevie Wonder.
The sometimes-clunky script makes cartoons of most of the show’s white characters, and some of its behind-the-scenes drama would work in a soap opera. But the show gains some gravitas as it progresses through the turbulent 1960s, and eventually, all that matters to the audience is the music.
Motown the Musical is certainly not at the level of the jukebox musical gold standard, Jersey Boys. But it offers happily nostalgic audiences the chance to once again savor in a kind of fantasy concert the work of many extraordinary artists. Some are gone, but the man whose creative vision intersected with theirs has found a way to celebrate them in song.
If you go
What: ‘Motown the Musical.’
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through March 8 (additional show 2 p.m. March 4, no evening show March 8).
Information: 800-745-3000 or www.browardcenter.org.