Broadway’s “Motown the Musical,” the story of music mogul Berry Gordy, runs June 16-28 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
By Allison Hata
There’s power in music. It’s the moral of the Motown story, which unfolds on the Segerstrom Center for the Arts stage through June 28.
The Broadway musical, which opened in Costa Mesa on June 16, takes the audience through 25 years of iconic tunes from industry mogul Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown Records label. The audience is bombarded with hit after hit from R&B legends like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, spanning from the 1960s to early 1980s. High-energy and packed with snippets from 60 songs, the pace doesn’t slow down.
Opening with a bang, the musical treats audiences to a Motown showdown between the Four Tops and Temptations at a 25th anniversary celebration in 1983. Meanwhile, Gordy (played by Julius Thomas III) broods in his living room over how the stars he developed have left him for major labels.
The storytelling time-hops back to 1938, as a young Gordy reacts to the boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, and then again to the 1950s, when he writes his first hit song for Jackie Wilson. Borrowing $800 from his family—set to the tune of “Money (That’s What I Want)”—Gordy begins to build an empire. Early on, he discovers the Miracles and Smokey Robinson (played by Jesse Nager), his first group in a lineup of notable artists.
The hits keep on coming: “My Guy” from the queen of Motown, Mary Wells; “Get Ready” and “My Girl” from the Temptations; “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
We watch as Diana Ross (played by Allison Semmes) blossoms from teenaged member of the “no-hit Supremes” to solo superstar, hearing familiar tunes like “Stop in the Name of Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” along the way. We’re introduced to the powerhouse Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, with songs including “ABC” and “I’ll Be There.” Marvin Gaye (played by Jarran Muse) helps punctuate historical milestones—the Detroit riots and assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., for example—with soulful songs like “What’s Going On.” (Of note: The song was released in 1971, while King’s assassination was in 1968 and the riots in 1967.)
There’s a little romance, as well. Gordy and Ross’ relationship makes way for the standard “You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You” and “I Hear a Symphony.” Then comes the show’s depiction of an ongoing legal battle, in which the mogul’s artists leave the independent label one by one.
The show is impossibly fast-paced. As such, the only thing Motown fans might find disappointing is they might hear just a few bars of their favorite tune.
From this production, highlights include a showstopping performance by Reed L. Shannon as a young Michael Jackson; a crooning, soulful Semmes as Ross portraying Billie Holiday; and group numbers by ensemble players as the Four Tops, Temptations and Jackson 5. Unexpectedly, an audience member—a “silver-haired fox” as Semmes described him—received a standing ovation after the actress as Ross plucked him from the audience to join her in the chorus of “Reach Out and Touch.”
It seems difficult to fit more than two decades’ worth of hits into one show, but the real-life Gordy manages to compact his book—“To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown—into less than three hours. His adaptation allows the music to do the talking and glosses over some of the more unsavory details of the founder’s life. Those more interested in the storytelling rather than the music might find themselves wanting (particularly those interested in an objective look at the ups and downs of Motown), but for pure, nostalgic entertainment, this musical satisfies 60 times over.
When: June 16-28; Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa
Tickets: Start at $29
Contact: 714-556-2787; scfta.org