I’ll admit I’m biased – I may not be a boomer who lived through the glory days of Motown, but I have loved Detroit soul for as long as I can remember. So, even though Motown the Musical isn’t as well constructed as, say, Dreamgirls (ahem), I still had a royally good time.
We see the story of the legendary record label’s rise from the point of view of its founder Berry Gordy. It’s more than a little telling that Berry Gordy, in addition to being the musical’s central character, is also the bookwriter and producer.
So, is the story the show tells self-serving as a result? Very much so! But I was surprised and pleased to find that matters much less than I thought it would. I think this is in large part due to the man playing Gordy, Brandon Victor Dixon – he plays the role with such commitment and conviction that even if we find what Gordy (both character and bookwriter) says is occasionally perhaps a half-truth, we never doubt for a second that Gordy the character believes it totally, and means every word he says. That helps in a big way.
You would hope that something called Motown the Musical would do right by the music itself, and, hip hooray, it does! The label produced such a huge amount of stunningly good music that some of it inevitably gets compressed into medleys and the like, but thankfully never in a way that feels rushed. Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook’s arrangements are suitably theatrical while always remaining faithful to what made the originals so great.
Often, when I mention the sound design of a musical it’s to complain about it, but in the case of Motown the Musical it’s quite the opposite. Ladies and gentlemen, take note – this is how you amplify music for the theatre! Sound designer Peter Hylenski makes sure the bass booms when it should boom and the cymbal hisses when it should hiss, all the while never getting in the way of every last lyric being crystal clear. This is a new gold standard, and Hylenski deserves a Tony for it.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright’s direction is spot-on, especially when it comes to setting a clear emotional context for the “in-performance” songs. Choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams is even more on target, to the point of being positively eerie – yes indeed, Jackie Wilson moved exactly like that, and so did Mary Wells and Diana Ross and so on.
But, as with Kinky Boots, what I say hardly matters, this is an honest-to-goodness critic-proof hit. For what it’s worth I found it often thrilling, and came very close to loving it.
For tickets, click here.
To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.