This is one of those productions that is a perfect musical for anyone who loves these tunes but may be new to the world of theater. Sometimes it is more fun to see a musical that you do not have to think too hard about. There is a linear story, with fantastic acting, outstanding singing, and phenomenal dancing and that is what this production is. It tells the story of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Gordy is responsible for helping to launch the careers of some of the biggest names in music including Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Lionel Richie, and many more.
I want to start by giving my readers a few quick facts about this musical (generously put together by Hennepin Theatre Trust). Motown was founded in Detroit in 1959 and was originally nicknamed "Hitsville, U.S.A." Later, it opened a Los Angeles office and eventually moved its headquarters there in 1972. Gordy first worked on an assembly line and was fascinated by using this structure but for producing music. His hope was to have a no body off the street walk in and walk out a well-known artist.
The plot centers around a 25-year reunion for Motown, before jumping back in time to explain the history of how it started. It effortlessly incorporates many Motown songs both as the actor singing the song as a concert within the musical and also as the actor singing the song written into the plot (like what we are mostly used to). First of all, there is no weak link in this production. Countless of actors play a large variety of Motown singers (including 450 different costumes appearing on stage) while some played the same for the entire production. Chester Gregory, who played Berry Gordy, had the vocals that made me, quite literally, swoon in my seat. At times it was smooth but powerful and full of emotion.
Allison Semmes, who played Diana Ross, was the highlight of the production for me. As a huge Diana Ross and the Supremes fan, I was mouthing along to each and every one of their songs. Semmes was an outstanding Diana Ross. She had the voice (both singing and talking) along with her mannerisms. She quite literally was Diana Ross on stage. The entire ensemble had the audience often humming their favorite tunes under their breath. At times they would encourage the audience to clap, sing along or help them sing some of the tunes.
In the past, I have expressed my distaste for projections. I think they take audience members outside of the magic of theater. I've never been a huge fan of them since I saw my first one in Wizard of Oz. However, the one used in this production I was pleasantly surprised with. The set included a fairly blank stage with minimal furniture and props coming on and off stage. It included a large screen that was able to have projections on it as well as moving pillars. They heightened the performance and story but it was not relied on and that is when I am happy with a production using projections.
Overall, Motown The Musical is a fun production for everyone. Whether you're familiar with Motown music or not, whether you're an active theater viewer or not, there is something for everyone in this production. There is a reason why each and every one of these actors are on that stage. They are all magnificent and completely dedicated to their craft. Motown The Musical is a mixture of a jukebox musical and also a step back in time. It's a thoroughly delightful production that everyone can enjoy whether you love the soulfulness of Steview Wonder or the harmonies of the Supremes.
*Photos by Joan Marcus