Motown: The Musical is more than a Broadway show: it’s the equivalent of a highly-energetic concert or music video played out in real time. With it’s moving set pieces, constant bright colors and brilliant use of actors breaking the fourth wall, Motown sets out to make the audience question whether they are apart of a legendary concert or watching the development of one of America’s most iconic record labels. It’s also one of the strongest shows to close out a brilliant season for the Orpheum, and one that I had an incredible time being apart of.
Motown tells the swift rise of Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, and the dynamic roster he created. Younger fans (like me!) might be surprised to know how many iconic musicians Gordy discovered and signed. From Diana Ross to the Jackson Five to Stevie Wonder, Gordy had a knack for not only picking the best talent of his era but for bringing them together as a family. The show opens with Gordy bristling at the thought of attending Motown’s 25th Anniversary Party. “Why do I want to celebrate a label that might not even be here Monday?” he shouts angrily at one point in the show. Mulling over his responsibility in attending the celebration leads Gordy back in time to the fifties when he first met Smokey Robinson. From there, the show follows in chronological, and oftentimes swift order, the huge mark Motown left on the world.
Viewers might need a few minutes to settle in to the fast paced flow of constant hits from the likes of the Temptations, Supremes and Marvin Gaye, but once they do they’re in for a highly nostalgic ride. Most of the audience at Tuesday’s sold out show were around for Motown’s imperial era and they responded with the enthusiasm normally reserved for seeing these artists live. A number of times I noted couples and friends glancing at each other with a smile or nod that sealed the approval. For this audience, Motown: The Musical is the next best thing to attending a Motown artist’s show.
The show is indeed full of spirited performances with the best coming from Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) and Jesse Nager (Smokey Robinson). Semmes’ Ross is played to perfection: the wispy yet silky smooth voice and lush diva persona is on full display. But there’s a humanity to Ross that Semmes conveys which is often lost in the media. Gordy and Ross were lovers through the better part of the label’s run and Gordy portrays Ross well. She’s humble, kind and oftentimes very aware of the problems her celebrity has caused within her girl-group the Supremes. Semmes plays this conflict well, and when Ross finally comes into her own in the extremely meta number “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” Semmes made the audience believe they were experiencing Diana perform in person.
Where Semmes’ performance is sensual, Nager’s depiction of Smokey Robinson is whimsical, sweet and a welcome comic relief. From the moment Nager opened his mouth in Robinson’s high pitched boyish voice, the audience was his. Nager undergoes quite the physical transformation in the show: He moves from clean cut boy to 70s-era man, and he does it with impressive realism. What I enjoyed most though, was the early days of Robinson. Nager gives Robinson a goofy charm that sticks with you throughout the show.
Perhaps the most unexpectedly brilliant part of Motown comes from Leon Outlaw, Jr. who plays the young Michael Jackson (along with young Stevie Wonder/ Berry Gordy). The kid has true talent and embodies the powerhouse performer Jackson was at a young age so freakishly well. The audience did not take long to absolutely freak out when The Jackson 5 began performing “ABC.” Outlaw’s voice is almost uncannily like the young Jackson and his persona is closely related, too. He’s a scene stealer whenever he’s onstage.
Along with the performers, special praise should be reserved for the lighting and tech crew. Motown would not be such a dazzling experience if it wasn’t for the lighting and beautiful set pieces. The costumes were also as glamorous as you could possibly want; Ross’s clothes, for one, were made to be envied.
As the show barrels to it’s inevitable end at the 25th Anniversary party, no less than sixty songs are performed in under three hours. It’s a fascinating retrospective at what a powerful and influential label Motown was, and how the Civil Rights Movement and racial wars influenced the change in Motown’s talent. Racism is dealt with explicitly and openly in the show, with all of the characters coming to own their “blackness.” It’s a powerful show for Memphis to witness.
Motown marks, not only the close of the Orpheum season, but the last show with it’s longtime president and CEO Pat Halloran who is retiring this year. Halloran is moving on to other great ventures though, by beginning the Halloran Centre For Performing Arts & Education. Halloran will be missed in future seasons, but the Orpheum is continuing it’s movement of diverse and award-winning shows, kicking off next season with Cinderella and closing with The Book Of Mormon. It’s a not-to-be-missed season and I can’t wait to kick it off.
Motown is open through the 19th, and tickets are VERY LIMITED. Buying in advance is highly recommended. You can purchase tickets here. Performance times and dates are listed below:
Thursday, July 16, 2015 7:30 PM
Friday, July 17, 2015 8:00 PM
Saturday, July 18, 2015 2:00 PM
Saturday, July 18, 2015 8:00 PM
Sunday, July 19, 2015 1:30 PM
Sunday, July 19, 2015 7:00 PM