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'Motown' Is Heavy On Hits But Short On Plot

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on May 16, 2014 3:00PM

"Motown the Musical" at the Oriental Theatre.

If you go into Motown the Musical with a desire to see beloved Motown hits recreated by a supremely talented cast, then you won’t be disappointed. The Tony-nominated show, now on the first leg of its national tour, is a jukebox musical, plain and simple—the backstory involving legendary Motown Records founder Berry Gordy is just the glue that holds the performances together. And for some of us, that might be okay. For others, we need a more appealing—and, quite frankly, honest—storyline that doesn’t gloss over the bumps in the road to musical infamy.

Berry Gordy, who was in attendance along with Smokey Robinson on press night, struggled to found Motown Records but quickly proved he has an ear for new talent and the work ethic to become a big name in the music business. And it’s that struggle that the musical attempts to convey on stage, but it’s hard to focus on the plot (or lack of) when the hits just keep coming. They’re more than 30 of them in the first act alone, crammed between each scene—sometimes only a verse or two, just to give the audience a taste of nostalgia.

In between performances, we learn a little more about Gordy (the hard-working Clifton Oliver) and his affair with Diana Ross, which started when she was just a fledgling member of The Supremes. Allison Semmes’ Ross has some knock-out concert scenes but very little actual development—the audience never really learns why she fell for Gordy or what really made her leave Motown Records (other than money). Along the way, we get some memorable scenes from Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), Stevie Wonder (Elijah Ahmad Lewis) and the Jackson 5, but none of the scenes are heavy-hitting enough to truly shine light behind-the-scenes on Motown and its star performers. The Detroit house that became the home to Hitsville USA seemed more of a swinging door than a musical incubator.

Motown’s touring cast is top-notch, though, and you’ll likely tap your toe throughout. Reed L. Shannon’s young Michael Jackson is a talented crowd-pleaser, and many of the songs have been given a sort of electric new feel on stage. Motown is more of a staged, fast-paced concert than a fully fleshed out musical, but for some, that’s all they need to take in the still-beloved music from a defining era.

The show runs through Saturday, Aug. 9 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., 312-977-1700 or online.