Performing Arts: Theater
April 19, 2013
Motown the Musical is a feel-good cavalcade of soul tunes and dance routines popularized by Barry Gordey’s legendary Motown Records. Baby Boomers fed on the blockbuster catalogue and they are coming in droves to the Lunt Fontanne Theatre to sing-along with their favorite soul stars.

All the famous acts of the 1960’s and 1970’s swoop onto the stage belting out timeless hits about love, lost love, unrequited love, erotic love, and every other manifestation of obsessive love until President Kennedy and Martin Luther King are assassinated. The country’s civil rights awakening, riots and tragic murders usher in the potent black protest music that penetrates the soundtrack of rebel college students.

An uplifting story of a young African American man intent on breaking into the music business in a bid to feature his multi-talented friends and claim ownership of the product, Berry Gordy (the dynamic Brandon Victor Dixon) uses $1000 to buy a house in Detroit and turn it into Hitsville USA. But this was not just a music label; this was a house that built full-blown performers. Clients were taught how to act, sing, dance, dress, and behave. At the time, blacks and whites did not mix but the infectious soul music became a grand cultural mixer that helped tear down racial discrimination.

Stretched over the thin backbone of a story scripted by Mr. Gordy about the construction of a musical empire, director Charles Randolph-Wright literally pulls one act after another from the wings into the bright lights for a musical teaser. Understandably, the era produced a bounty of hits, and the elimination process must have been grueling, but sometimes you feel cheated by getting a mere glimpse of an act like Gladys Knight (the excellent Marva Hicks) and the Pips nailing “I Heard it On the Grapevine.”

Everyone belts out the truncated classics including standout deliveries by Mr. Dixon, Valisia LeKae (Diana Ross), Charl Brown (Smokey Robinson) Bryan Terrell Clark (Marvin Gaye) and a show-stealing, knockout performance by Raymond Luke, Jr. as the young Michael Jackson. Ms. LeKae succeeds in interpreting Ross’ smoky voice and glamorous vibe, but she occasionally loses pitch. Sailing through dreamy voiced songs, Mr. Brown easily assumes Smokey Robinson’s temperate personality and although Mr. Clark is in fine voice, he lacks Gaye’s vulnerability—but then, that’s what made him such a singular artist. In a clever bit of staging, Mr. Randolph-Wright arranges the male acts on stage like do-wop groups grabbing a pavement corner.

Of course, signature Motown dance routines were central to the Motown sound. Characterized by precision and style nailed to sharp hand gestures, tight spins and punctuated stops, the routines roused young audiences into a frenzy of body-shaking excitement. However, no one can top the original dance sequences devised by the master Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins. Exemplified by rhythmic, crystalline steps contrasted by dramatic pauses, expressive hands and head snaps, these dance routines coupled cool to sex.

For Motown The Musical, these now famous dance routines are re-drawn by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams for performers suited-up by costume designer Esosa performers who move through evocative, portable sets by David Korins. Some of the best dance moments come when the Four Tops rip into their in-place, bent leg-to –straight-leg strut and sudden bend at the waist, head down to freeze. Dance sequences tie together scenes using more contemporary steps, but considering the highly skilled ensemble composed of dancers from Juilliard, and major dance companies, the choreography under-rates its dance corps.

As a whole, the production works because everyone loves the story of an outsider transformed into king of his universe who ushered in a music phenomenon that still dominates the soundtracks of film scores, commercials, television and date nights.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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