Review: Motown

Motown: The Musical Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

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.

Review: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall

Part of the joy of listening to really good jazz is the exciting spontaneity of improvisation. A rhythm that jumps out of nowhere, a melody that turns in an unexpected direction. In the cabaret show they are doing at the Cafe Carlyle, trumpeter Herb Alpert, his singer wife Lani Hall and the expert players behind them, this thrilling spontaneity is on more outlandish display than I think I’ve ever experienced in the world of cabaret.

Alpert is most associated with his group the Tijuana Brass, and was also a recording industry executive — he is the “A” of A&M Records, which he founded with business partner Jerry Moss. Lani sang with A&M artist Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, most famously on their hit version of “Mas Que Nada”. In the act at the Carlyle they perform selections from the two albums they’ve recently recorded together (the first time in their decades-long marriage that they’ve collaborated in that way), as well as a medley of Tijuana Bras hits.

I can’t overstate the impressive and exciting musicianship in this act. Alpert has structured the songs in intricate ways that leave abundant room for improvisation. They may play the same songs from night to night, but musically every performance will be utterly different. Alpert is a breathtakingly soulful player, and Lani has that kind of liquid crystal voice that songwriters dream of.

Most impressive of all was a reworking of brilliant Brazilian songwriter Edu Lobo’s “Viola Fora de Moda” – which Alpert has given a structure suffciently complex that the normally powerfully present Hall lost her place at the top of the number. Once she regained her composure, however, she and the band locked into a groove and improvised their way into the stratosphere. Stunning.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Petula Clark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Petula Clark is best known as a singer, but on the basis of her cabaret show at Feinstein’s – her first such show in the city since the 1970s – I’d venture to say she’s even stronger as an actor and writer. Sure she’s won two Grammy Awards, and one of the evening’s high points is a beautifully sung “La Vie En Rose” (on which it should be noted, Petula accompanies herself gorgeously on piano).

But that “La Vie” is stunning in part because she so clearly acts, in both her singing and playing, the emotional story behind the song. And the very highest point of the evening is Clark’s reading of her own poem “The Theatre” – a refreshingly honest love letter to that art form. She prepares the audience for it very cleverly, comically anticipating their groans of “oh God, a poem”. Even though people generally think of Clark as as phenomenon of the 1960s, she in fact had been acting since her childhood in the 1940s, and that shines through.

The evening didn’t start out so promisingly, with Clark singing a terribly cheesy arrangement of Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate On You”. But then she went on to perform her chart-topping pop hits like “Downtown,” “I Know A Place” and “My Love,” generally in ways that were intriguingly more bluesy that the originals.

Even stronger though, were songs from her theatrical career from shows such as Sunset Boulevard, Blood Brothers and Finian’s Rainbow – these are where Petula, the committed actress, gave the most help to Petula the pop singer. All in all, this act is a pretty fun entry in New York’s cabaret world, and for someone who hasn’t done this kind of thing in decades, pretty damn good.

For tickets, click here.