Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Motown"

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entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth


by Sheila Barth

  Gotta dance. Gotta move to the groove. Ain’t no mountain high enough to keep us from enjoying the music of wicked groovy Motown hit, “Motown the Musical”.

For former teenagers who idolized Motown’s sounds to today’s teens clapping, wiggling and singing along with their parents, “Motown the Musical” is a rhythmic love fest.

From the first blast of Darryl Archibald’s combined touring and local orchestra, as the curtain opens, and this large, talented cast revives some of those golden (and platinum) hits, theatergoers are revved up, eager for more. 

For the next few hours, they revel in a 40+ cavalcade of tunes, strung together with snapshot scenes of Motown originator Berry Gordy’s meteoric rise to international fame, from his humble beginnings to creating his musical dynasty. Berry discovered, advanced, and secured performers, initially from the Detroit housing projects, then catapulted them to stardom.

Gordy also dared to cross racial barriers, challenging white radio disc jockeys to play his brand of music, (which they labeled as “race music”). It suddenly caught on like wildfire. Gordy’s vision and business acumen led to Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars, other popular white TV shows, and famous nightclubs and stages, thus changing the music scene forever. 

Thing is, everyone in this touring production, (directed by Charles Randolph-Wright), is terrific, from star Allison Semmes portraying divine diva, Diana Ross, to former Somerville resident, Jesse Nager, as mild-mannered, whispery toned Smokey Robinson and Jarran Muse as fiery activist, fabulous singer, Marvin Gaye. Young Leon Outlaw Jr. portraying youngster Michael Jackson, backed up by a fine ensemble of Jackson’s older brothers, brought the house down with “ABC,” “I’ll Be There,” and other Jackson Five hits. Outlaw’s personality beams,exuding little Michael’s adorable personality. He may not have all of Michael’s moves, but possesses his voice and spontaneity.

Throughout the show, Patricia Wilcox’s slick choreography emulates those fab moves of the Temptations, Four Tops, Jackson Five, Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Commodores, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and others.  

At last Thursday’s performance, Julius Thomas III successfully replaced Clifton Oliver in the lead role of Berry Gordy, garnering huge applause in his heartfelt solo, “Can I Close the Door,” and his final bow. The story focuses on Gordy’s career, and a subplot - meeting Diana Ross when she was an ambitious teen, performing with two of her high school friends,taking her in to Motown, grooming  and leading her to megastar status as a solo performer and movie star, while he was crazy in love with her.  

Years later, when Ross decides to strike out on her own, Gordy is shattered, but he bounces back, as the industry celebrates the 25th anniversary of Motown, with a big round-up performance of Berry’s discoveries - including Ross.     

Several ensemble members portray multiple roles, swiftly changing clothes and personalities. Elijah Ahmad Lewis, is superb portraying Stevie Wonder (he’s also Levi Stubbs, Miracle, Pip Jr., and Walker Allstar), and Doug Storm draws hearty laughs in cameo appearances as former TV’s Ed Sullivan. Storm also portray Shelly Berger and Dudley Buell.

Esosa’s costumes, from 1930s-1960s streetwear to iconic, glitzy gowns and jewel-toned attire, coupled with Charles LaPointe’s hair design and wigs, are eye-popping. 

With this exuberant, jiving cast of 35, there isn’t much room for an elaborate set with scene changes, so David Korins‘ sets are minimal, including Gordy’s home office of Motown’s beginnings in his hometown Detroit, (which he named “Hitsville, USA,” and his sister since converted into a museum). However, they’re amply amplified with Natasha Katz’s lighting,emblazoned with psychedelic blasts of color and ‘60s geometric and floral designs. Daniel Brodie’s video projections add vivid historic and dramatic coverage of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s tragic assassinations, flower power hippies, Vietnam War and battle scenes, segregation in the South, race riots and marches, venues for blacks only and mixed venues, and bigtime places, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. And Peter Hylenski’s sound effects reverberate this fabulous blast to the past.

Although Gordy’s story line is a thin string between songs, he hits the highlights of his career, the stars he nurtured and cultivated, during the growth and decline of Motown. The former featherweight boxer (who idolized hometown hero Joe Louis), songwriter,and music mogul, earned himself and several performers a star on the great Hollywood walkway and status in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In his 25th anniversary speech, actor Gordy says, “My dream has always been to make people happy. You make me feel like I came close.” Judging from theatergoers’ resounding applause, the real Gordy can exult. Old and new generations of happy audiences are still cruising, dancing in the streets. I heard it through the grapevine and witnessed it firsthand.

BOX INFO: Boston premiere of national touring company production, “Motown the Musical,” two-act, 2-3/4 hour musical, book by Berry Gordy, with music and lyrics from the Legendary Motown Catalog, appearing through Feb.15, at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston:Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m.; Sundays, 1,6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $43. Visit or the Box Office, or call Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787.

"Motown" (till 15 February)
@ Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, BOSTON MA

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