Theater Review: Motown the Musical

I, just as most people in the last few generations, have been affected by the Motown legacy; who doesn’t sing along when songs like “My Girl” and “ABC” come on the radio? I went into Motown the Musical knowing the music would be excellent, and indeed it was.

Practically every hit song that came out of Motown was there, and some that I’d never heard of before. In fact, as far as the amount of music, I would have preferred fewer songs that we heard more of. As it was, some songs were sung for a few lines before immediately jumping to another song. Now, don’t get me wrong, the performances from both the band and the singers were outstanding. It was a party in the theater, with people occasionally singing along to old favorites, encouraged by the performers onstage to do so (at one point, Diana Ross had us all hold hands and sing along with “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand”), and cheering more than almost any show I’d ever attended. While it’s unfair to compare musical theater performers playing a role to the actual person they are playing, I was not disappointed in anyone’s portrayal of the famous singers; Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, a young Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, plus many more are portrayed and indeed, the cast did an admirable job.

I enjoyed all of the staging, dance, costumes, lighting; aesthetically, it’s a very entertaining show, especially when paired with the amazing music. One of the main things I came away with was how classy, artistic, and truly masterful popular music and performance used to be; the artists of the 60’s-70’s Motown were so incredibly talented. Their dance moves were smooth as butter, as well as their voices, and it’s really quite sad to see how far away from that amazing quality we’ve gotten in popular music (generalization, there are some very talented artists out there).

The script, however, was practically atrocious. In Act 1, I had no idea what story they were trying to tell. I knew Barry Gordy was the main character, but they did little to establish the actor was indeed Gordy onstage at the beginning. There were awkwardly pushed agendas right and left, from racism to anti-war to a David vs. Goliath idea of the indie record label vs huge labels. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having some sort of message or agenda for a show like this, especially one that is mostly autobiographical, and during a time when there is a lot of unrest and prejudice, but having so many different agendas paired with a very vague script made it extremely difficult to hone in on the main story. Once we got around to Gordy and Ross’ romance, the script became slightly easier to follow, but that wasn’t until the end of Act 1. On top of needing to be streamlined, the script itself is very poorly written. The actors did their best to make it not awkward, but even their very good performances couldn’t make up for the atrocious writing. The awkwardness was palpable, and I, as an actress myself, felt a little bad for the performers who had to work really hard get the most they could out of such a horrible script.

Fortunately, the script is being revised, and the show will be back on Broadway within a year; at least, that’s the word on the street. Motown will have no problem selling tickets, thanks to the outstanding music and staging, but I’m not sure I could sit through that script again. I appreciate the fact that the producers recognize the need to be revised (and cut down perhaps, since both acts ran at an hour and a half). I do highly recommend that if you love the music, that you see the show, as you won’t be disappointed in the performances.  I give the music and staging five stars, but the script one.

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