Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review: The Legendary Groove Comes to Life in Motown the Musical

Allison Semmes as Diana Ross, Julius Thomas III as Berry Gordy.
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour (C) Joan Marcus, 2015

Turning a profit in the theatre business is challenging at best but it isn’t surprising that Motown the Musical easily recouped its initial investment during its run on Broadway, or its outlay for the First National Tour, now playing at the Hollywood Pantages. The popularity of the Motown sound is undeniable. Even if you wanted to, it’s impossible to keep from being carried away by the irresistible groove of the music. And why would you even want to try?

This is Berry Gordy’s story, the visionary who would introduce the world to the music of Motor City by starting his own record label with the modest profits from his early songwriting career and an $800 loan from his family. It even features a book written by Gordy but while it links the songs with a through line that explains how he got from point A to point B, the story treatment stays light. Video footage touches on the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and Kennedy and King assassinations but, for the most part, the entertainment avoids controversy and instead highlights the legendary music.

Of course, that’s the big reason to see this musical, which features more than 40 hits from the Motown catalog. Baby boomers will be in seventh heaven listening to the songs of their youth by artists like The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Everything from Michael Jackson and his brothers singing “ABC” to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ smooth “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” is here. Pick your favorite and it’s a good bet you’ll find it in the show beautifully sung by a dynamite cast of performers who stay true to the original musical styles. No American Idol influence here; just a soulful connection to the music, sensational voices, and some pretty terrific choreography. Like I said, heaven!

Much of the story concerns Gordy’s (Julius Thomas III) relationship with Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) and his determination to make her a star. Thomas and Semmes have a sweet chemistry that we see grow from their initial meeting (when she and her Supremes first started pestering him while they were still in high school) to their crossover into love, marriage, fame, and divorce. He is passionate and likable; she captures the mannerisms and vocal inflections of the diva beautifully. Plus, her recreation of “Reach Out and Touch” succeeded in connecting with the audience until everyone was holding hands -- arms raised -- and swaying back and forth singing along with her. From where I was sitting, it was something to see.

There are terrific performances by Jess Nager as Gordy’s best friend Smokey Robinson, Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye, and an impressive newcomer, Leon Outlaw, Jr., one of three boys alternating in the role of young Michael Jackson. Reliving the Jackson 5’s performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, with psychedelic op art designs pulsating around them on movable panels, made my night. Color floods the stage and it’s 1969 all over again. Muse gives weight to the production with beautiful versions of “Mercy, Mercy, Me” and “What’s Going On,” as Gaye turns his attention to more socially conscious music that remains especially resonant today.

The joyful expression of singers loving the music they sing and expressing that love wholeheartedly - whether the song is upbeat, reflective, or painfully poetic -- is what this musical is all about.

The 15-piece orchestra is spectacular under the baton of music director Darryl Archibald (familiar to Los Angeles audiences for his many local musical productions). Plus, the sound balance between the orchestra and the singers is perfect (I’m not kidding) proving that the right technician on the sound board can make or break a show. In this case, it worked like a dream.

Berry Gordy built a legacy of love with Motown Records and Motown the Musical puts the power of the music front and center in a vibrant, energetic tribute that is sure to continue enchanting audiences for years to come. Ultimately the show communicates his desire to make music for all people. Like he says, “It’s What’s in the Grooves That Counts.”

All photos below: MoTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour (C) Joan Marcus, 2014

Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and Cast

Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross)
and Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson)

The Temptations

Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves (center) & Cast

April 28 - June 7, 2015
Pantages Theatre

6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood, CA  90028

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