The beat of the Motor City, the sound of young America, the soundtrack to a generation, hit the stage Tuesday evening at the Keller Auditorium with Broadway’s Motown: The Musical.
Performed by the national touring company and in town through Sunday as part of the Broadway in Portland series, Motown is a jukebox serenade to the hits and personalities that have had a grip on our imagination for decades: the original singles, clothing, dance steps and sweet harmonies are not just a songbook, but a reflection of our shared histories.
Motown released in its heyday 1,657 singles between 1962 and 1971, with another decade or so with more hits to come. The book for Motown: The Musical was written by the man who started it all, Berry Gordy. Keeping that in mind, all you music fans and historians, Motown: The Musical is his side of the story. But Gordy did put down a hefty chunk of change to start Hitsville U.S.A, had an innovative idea on how to promote black music, and was the one person who stayed through it all. He’s transparent and admits his flaws: he didn’t want Marvin Gaye to leave his sexy soul-singer image to record the protest album What’s Going On. Gordy fought off and on with Stevie Wonder about his contract and disagreed when Stevie left the studio to petition Congress for a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He had a longtime affair with Diana Ross that ultimately put Motown in limbo financially and hurt the other artists. Gordy is willing to admit his misjudgments and is tasteful in his telling of the Motown story. In this show there’s no recognition of Temptations lead singer David Ruffin, high out of his mind, beating Tammi Terrell; and maybe a little more should’ve been devoted to the Supremes founder Florence Ballard’s fall from grace. The Funk Brothers are mentioned a few times, and James Jamerson, their tragic bass player hero, but the band’s lack of royalties in creating the Motor City sound is not addressed. As Gordy sees it, there’s the people behind the music, but the music is what is most important.
Gordy isn’t shy about Motown being inspired by the Ford factory he worked in in Detroit, for rolling out the hits and that money was always on his mind. He doesn’t hide his strong personality or being a relentless taskmaster in pursuing his dream to uplift raw talent into stars that show a positive image of black potential. He has been called, in unfavorable circumstances, Massa Gordy. One former Motown singer I interviewed a few years back became chilled and quickly changed subjects about her time there. It was obvious he had a velvet-hammer approach to his business.
But, there ain’t no place like Motown, Hitsville U.S.A. Motown: The Musical is the closest you will ever get to a Motor City Revue today. All of the key players are acted out. Gordy’s fine attention to detail, authenticity, and live entertainment tell us what we missed by not seeing the bands live, and also give us a taste of why the music and artists remain important. Chalk up a night of performances inspired by the Miracles, Four Tops, Contours, Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Supremes, The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Mary Wells, Jackie Wilson, Junior Walker and Barrett Strong: well, that’s hard to beat.
The show is not a pageant of impersonations: it finds a delicate balance between showcasing the talent on stage and drawing the performers into recorded character. Jesse Nager’s Smokey Robinson doesn’t have the sweet molasses footwork of the songwriting and singing impresario, but he captures the gentle and diplomatic nature that kept the company together through the hard times. He has the whispery voice, and in just a few brief physical cues, gives a nod to how important Claudette Robinson was to the Miracles.
The costume and wig changes are elaborate, and they should be: Motown was a trendsetter for making urban blackness chic and sophisticated. Jarran Muse’s Marvin Gaye is at first the well-suited but awkward man trying to be Nat “King” Cole who needs his glasses. He appears in a haze after a performance of the Temptations’ song Ball of Confusion in his real skin: wide-lapeled suit, high-riding boots, and red knit cap. Of course, the many ladies of Motown move from couture summer dresses into their more appropriate shimmied sequined gowns. Their costume changes are magical and pop out. The evening’s most stunning moment was Muse’s Marvin Gaye propped against Gordy’s desk, singing in a crystalline a cappella Mercy, Mercy Me. The Motown band is headed by Darryl Archibald, and any show with a live band makes the experience all the better. However, at Tuesday’s opening night show the sound levels were off and often the vocals became buried in the instruments.
The tip of the Motown iceberg is performed with 50 songs over the evening that give the audience a good look at the beginning and breadth of the hit-making machine. There are a few moments of pulsating circles straight from Stevie Wonder’s orange-and-yellow-petaled LP Songs in the Key of Life for the backdrop. Little accents make the show, for example, the Temptations’ circular windmill mic, backgrounds splashing colorful recreations of album covers and an almost note for note reproduction of the Jackson 5’s performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, down to Michael’s fringed vest and Bolero hat.
Berry Gordy had picked up the torch of being an artist and entrepreneur in a white-dominated field from his predecessors Sam Cooke and contemporary Lloyd Price. He created a conglomerate that had an etiquette, a dance and talent training school for the Motown acts. While he kept his mind on the books, being a man it strayed, and he found his destiny with Diana Ross. Allison Semmes almost recreates the legend from Ross’s early days as a Detroit Projects doo-wop singer to the full-fledged feathered diva. One of the more meaningful moments of the evening is Semmes’ recreation of Diana’s solo debut, Reach Out and Touch. Diana moved beyond her Supremes roots, starring in Academy Award-nominated films such as Lady Sings the Blues, and became a star in the gay community. With the recent tragedy at the Pulse Club in Orlando still very fresh, a special feeling rose as the audience held hands and sang along with Motown: The Musical’s Ross number: it showed how music and theater bring people together in moments of kindness and solidarity.
Chester Gregory takes the cake for the night, playing the controversial, but inspiring character of Berry Gordy. He’s on stage for most of the two-hour performance, narrating and singing his way through Gordy’s personal and professional story, which ends up being part of our own. There’s no real way to put the entire Motown story and track list on stage, but this is an evening that makes you want to sing, holler, and go home for more.
Motown: The Musical continues through Sunday at Keller Auditorium. Ticket and schedule information here.