NEW YORK – There are 36 songs in the new Broadway show Motown: The Musical. Actually, that’s just in the first act — 36 songs, not including a reprise of You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You. It’s like a jukebox went completely haywire.
To be sure, the songs are probably the best America has ever produced: War, What’s Going On? My Girl, You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, Dancing in the Streets and Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. But, still, 36? In comparison, The Book of Mormon has what now seems like a stingy 16 songs in total.
The 2-½-hour show, about Motown Records under founder Berry Gordy, has opened at The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre completely unbalanced: The songs are staggering, the book utterly flimsy.
MUSIC VS. PLOT
Both are due to one man: Gordy, who clearly knows what makes an indelible hit song, but also has an inability to write objectively about that skill. As the book writer, Gordy comes across almost divine, a true visionary who literally changed the world and race relations but was eventually abandoned by the artists he made stars when they sought to cash in. There are parts of the show that even a North Korean dictator would find excessively flattering.
Using a total of 59 songs or snippets of songs — not counting a tiny amount of the theme from the film Mahogany — Gordy tells the story of how his Motown empire rose and fell and then rose again. “You built a legacy of love,” he makes Smokey Robinson say, admiringly.
The story begins and ends in 1983 — Motown’s 25th anniversary — and is a celebration of an independent record company as much as one of Gordy. Why 1983? It neatly avoids mention of the sale of Motown in 1988.
The irony is that despite having a war chest of songs, Gordy has co-written (with Michael Lovesmith) four new ones to drive home plot points. They’re pretty good, especially It’s What’s in the Groove That Counts and Can I Close the Door.
Charles Randolph-Wright proves a director with real skill, able to seamlessly juggle an insane amount of songs, dozens of scenes and harness some quite stunning performances, led by a go-for-it Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy and Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross, who especially shines during an ad lib moment with the audience.
Other standouts include Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson, Saycon Sengbloh as Martha Reeves and Bryan Terrell Clark as Marvin Gaye. Raymond Luke Jr. — one of two boys taking turns playing the roles of young Gordy, young Stevie Wonder and a preteen Michael Jackson — was astounding and got one preview crowd thoroughly jazzed.
GRAPEVINE AT WAR
With so any tunes, backed by an 18-piece orchestra, it’s a challenge to find logical places to put them. Many are stuffed into long recording sessions at the Hitsville USA building in Detroit or when the artists tour or make TV appearances.
Often an attempt has been made to juxtapose the song with the action onstage and it’s a technique that works unevenly: It’s clever when I Heard It Through the Grapevine is played when there’s backdoor intrigue discussed at Hitsville. It doesn’t work as well when the iconic song War is used to underline some bitter legal wrangling.
Gordy even threatens to tarnish some of these songs when he puts them into service to tell his story, as when he uses My Girl while trying to bed Ross (“I’m going to knock it out the park, baby,” he privately boasts to Robinson.) My Girl is too lovely to be used so callously. (“I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” a smitten Ross says during the seduction. Of course she does.)
TOO MUCH LIBERTY
At other times, Gordy is dishonest to history. In the show, the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. prompts a riot in Detroit, triggering the song What’s Going On? The riot was in the summer of 1967, King was assassinated in April 1968 and the song came out in 1971.
Choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams have the cast dance in the familiar styles of their respective eras and also have a few big tricks up their sleeves, as the well-executed Dancing in the Streets production number in Act 1 and the Ball of Confusion performance that opens Act 2. ESosa’s costumes beautifully change as the decades do, with the bright and sharp ’50s turning more earthy and loose — and hairy — as the night progresses.
To be fair, Gordy’s story is a remarkable one and should be told onstage, warts and all. His songs are the soundtrack of America, but letting him tell his own story has cheapened it. He didn’t “knock it out of the park, baby."