When you own the most interesting jukebox in history, the temptation to produce a jukebox musical must be irresistible. Berry Gordy waited more than 40 years after the heyday of Motown to reproduce the best of its catalog (sometimes in its entirety, more often in fragments and medleys) in “Motown: The Musical.”
The plot may be simple – Gordy’s rise and struggles as he started the first major black record label – and the characters may be sketched out, except for Gordy himself.
Yet the show at Belk Theater does a good, rapid-fire job of presenting the era in which it takes place, mostly the late 1950s through the 1970s. Motown broke down racial barriers: The label billed itself as “The Sound of Young America,” rather than “Black America,” and everyone I knew in middle and high school listened to it.
And the production does just what writer-producer Gordy and director Charles Randolph-Wright wanted: It introduces young people to the products of Hitsville U.S.A. (as Gordy dubbed his studio) and reminds old-timers of what they felt when they heard this music decades ago.
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Randolph-Wright made an insightful comment in our interview last month: “It’s two shows at once. It’s Berry Gordy’s journey, creating Motown. But you also have to leave time for the audience to have its own journey. They’re thinking about the day their baby was born or the day they met their future wife, and this music was playing.”
The moment I heard the opening notes of “Where Did Our Love Go,” I flashed back to the summer of 1964 and the Tilt-a-Whirl at Seaside Heights, N.J. All around me, the audience (most of it over 40) seemed to do the same.
Josh Tower gives Gordy a ferocious drive and sings his big solo, “Can I Close the Door” (a new ballad by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith), in a resonant high baritone. The author wasn’t afraid to make his character rule-bound, headstrong and controlling, though he’s also smart and daring. (In an unusually revealing moment, he’s impotent on his first night in bed with Diana Ross.)
Allison Semmes captures Ross’ breathy self-assurance; Jesse Nager conveys the peacemaking and confident sides of Smokey Robinson; Jarran Muse morphs smoothly from pop idol to angry, socially conscious scribe as Marvin Gaye. They and Nathaniel Cullors – who got the loudest screams of recognition for his energized young Michael Jackson – emulate famous people well while bringing their own energy to the performances.
The show remains in almost constant motion, courtesy of Randolph-Wright and choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren. Set pieces, furniture, props and bodies roll, stride and slide in all directions, conveying the structured chaos that seems to have enveloped Motown.
The songs come up fresh after all these years. Some have been re-orchestrated, sped up to move the show along or given to people who didn’t sing them originally: Gordy and Ross duet on “You’re All I Need to Get By,” first done by Tammi Terrell, and it describes their relationship.
The talented (and sometimes extraordinarily loud) pit band stands in for Motown’s great Funk Brothers instrumentalists and – like the whole show – makes us appreciate both the originals and their re-creators.
‘Motown: The Musical’
WHEN: Aug. 25-Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000, blumenthalarts.org.