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Paulanne Simmons

The Motown Beat Takes Over Broadway

Motown: The Musical
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
205 West 46 Street
Opened April 14, 2013
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 17, 2013

Although “Motown: The Musical” has a slim book, it’s stuffed with all the great hits a child of the sixties could ever want. The book is by Berry Gordy, who surely knows what he’s writing about. Gordy founded the Motown record label in 1959 and launched the careers of many of the stars who figure in the play, stars who originally sang the music we hear.

Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae), Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown) and Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark) are principals in the show, but there’s also lots more: Martha and the Vandellas, The Jackson 5, and Mary Wells, to name a few. The ensemble is terrific. And of course there’s the towering presence of Gordy himself (Brandon Victor Dixon), a man who combined ambition, charisma and a keen instinct for what makes a hit.

The music from the Motown catalogue has been supplemented with songs by Berry Gordy and Michael Lovesmith. These additional songs are the ones that move the story of how a man who failed at just about everything he had ever undertaken (from boxing to business) became a major music mogul.

The play begins in 1983, with the 25th anniversary Motown television special taped before a live audience. Bitter over the disloyalty of the many stars who left Motown for more profitable contracts, Gordy seems to more likely stay home licking his wounds than let bygones be bygones and attend the celebration. But will he be able to resist his own apotheosis? If you’re looking for great suspense and drama this is not the show for you.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps the musical moving at a furious pace, with one hit following another, all the while, the lights flashing and the music blasting. There’s lots of hand clapping, onstage and off, and the distinctive hum of many in the audience singing along.

Dixon has a powerful voice and does his best with a script that never goes deep enough to be uncomfortable. Just because Gordy was there doesn’t mean he’s telling everything. The behind-the-scenes story of the Motown “family” has doubtless been a good deal sanitized.

But if Gordy’s relationship with Diana Ross is never fully revealed, LeKae is stunning both visually and vocally. She’s particularly vibrant in “Reach Out and Touch” and when she calls up two members of the audience to sing with her and bends her beautiful body over to shake hands with those lucky enough to have front-row seats. The mellow Smokey and the volatile Marvin are also well-represented by Brown and Clark.

Critics may frown all they want. “Motown: The Musical” is supremely entertaining. Even skeptics will leave bopping to the beat and smiling.


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