Review: Music is the star of the show in disjointed ‘Motown’

Berry Gordy, Jr. (Clifton Oliver) and Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) discuss ways to keep their personal and professional relationships separate in "Motown: The Musical," playing through Sept. 28th in San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Berry Gordy, Jr. (Clifton Oliver) and Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) discuss ways to keep their personal and professional relationships separate in “Motown: The Musical,” playing through Sept. 28th in San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The notes cascade from the heavens, a soulful comfort food that feeds the famished, that distinguished sound in all its regal glory.

The bass line that leads into the Temptations rendition of “My Girl.” The delicious piano that spells “You Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. And the blistering sax that ushers in the first moments of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me.”

All of it and more is on full display in “Motown: the Musical,” the dazzling production that is currently anchored at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre until Sept. 28th. The iconic chart-toppers are in full force, skillfully performed by a wonderful principal and ensemble cast, led smartly by director Charles Randolph-Wright and music director/conductor Darryl Archibald.

The musical takes on similarities of many jukebox musicals that follow a formula – take a tried and true catalogue, add a storyline and make magic happen. Shows with this formula, such as “Jersey Boys,” arguably the most popular and polished of this genre, has a bit more meat on the bones than Motown does. And similar brethren of the musical style of Motown, say “Dreamgirls” or “Memphis,” have much more depth to them. In Motown, there is not defiance to the level of Effie White in “And I am Telling You,” or pain and pathos in Felicia’s “Colored Woman.” Clifton Oliver’s turn as Gordy, as solid as it was, certainly was not assisted with all the unnecessary clunk in the script.

What is extremely compelling is the story of Gordy himself. Gordy was a young boy in 1938 when Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in the first round of their rematch. It was a match that took place nearly two years to the day after their first fight, a 12th round knockout for Schmeling. Gordy, like so many others, received a huge heaping of hope when Schmeling hit the canvas. It was this event that propelled a young Gordy to believe he can do anything, a sentiment shared by many of those in his Detroit neighborhood based on this transformative event.

You don’t last as long as Gordy without having to reinvent yourself along the way. While the tightly choreographed doo-wop ditties were the hallmark of the early ‘60’s, the show does a sharp montage later showcasing Gordy’s fresh and contemporary feel. Artists like Rick James, Teena Marie and the Commodores shaped the brand’s Los Angeles days, furthering Gordy’s Midas touch.

In addition to Oliver’s performance (his homage to Jackie Wilson was beyond divine), there was Jarran Muse’s channeling of Marvin Gaye, who dazzles with a timely and powerful rendition of “What’s Going On.” Allison Semmes tackling of Gordy’s protégé and lover Diana Ross is played with just the right amount of vulnerability that connects her to Ross’ initial reluctant star status. Nicholas Christopher’s portrayal of Smokey Robinson is sung with an absolute angelic force. And the precocious Reed L. Shannon absolutely nails a young Michael Jackson, most notably in those few opening notes in “Who’s Loving You.”

Berry Gordy’s bubbly and poignant soul, coupled with Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams sharp-as-nails choreography on a dazzler of a set design by David Korins are not the issue with the production. This show’s fatal flaw is Gordy’s book, which doesn’t tackle much in the way of depth. Surely, characters are dealing with issues – Marvin Gaye’s passion to mirror an ever-changing world, the perception and danger of “race music” in the Jim Crow south, and Gordy’s dealing with the exodus of his most popular artists, just to name a few.

The script deals with material in odd way, and what is oddest is how quickly issues are resolved. Gordy says things like “I don’t want any kid groups,” and then Michael Jackson tears up a studio audition. Presto, Gordy signs a kid group.

How about this one – Radio DJ states “I don’t play race music.” Gordy states he doesn’t do race music, just music. Gordy bets the DJ that the album will be a hit. DJ takes bet. Album is a hit. Love conquers all.

Certainly, this will not be an issue with the legions of fans who will attend the production, and certainly was not with the buzzing crowd on opening night. The Motown sound means something to everyone, one of the brightest lights to shine in the history of popular music. I certainly remember that iconic label spinning on 33 and 45 speeds growing up on the many record players we owned, my father having album after album of these joyous standards.

Despite its flaws, there is no better feeling than to be reminded of what the Motown sound is all about, and how that sound should never be too far away. To put it simply, it really has a hold on us.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF presents “Motown: The Musical”
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street (at 8th) San Francisco, CA 94102.
Aug. 15th – Sept. 28th
The Word: Clunky script stalls, but Motown music soars
Stars: 4 out of 5
Tickets range from $65 to $210
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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