(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
As a record company, Motown provided the soundtrack of American life in the latter half of the 20th century.
As a Broadway production, “Motown the Musical” (playing through May 1 at Bass Concert Hall as a part of the Broadway in Austin series, presented by the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Performing Arts) presents that music in a bright, flashy manner, but gets caught not knowing whether it wants to be a review or to tell a story.
The book for “Motown” is written by the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy, based on his memoir, with music and lyrics coming from “The Legendary Motown Catalog,” plus three original songs written by Gordy with Michael Lovesmith.
With almost 60 songs, “Motown” is overflowing with selections from the record label’s songbook, to the detriment of most of them. The majority of these classic hits are performed with the briefest of glosses, providing only a verse or two and the chorus before shuffling, medley-style, to the next.
Because “Motown” is so focused on getting in every hit song it can think of, the story is given short shrift. We see flashes of Gordy’s – and Motown’s – life story, but jump through years and pass by characters at a breakneck pace that doesn’t allow for any real emotional depth or development.
As a result, the songs may sound pitch-perfect and look fantastic (thanks to superb choreography by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams, and beautiful lighting design and costume design by Natasha Katz and Esosa, respectively), but they lack the heart and soul that made them classics in the first place.
What’s more, the few songs that arise out of the narrative, as in a book musical, may be more emotionally resonant (particularly Gordy and paramour Diana Ross singing “You’re All I Need to Get By”), but they seem out of place because the rest of the musical numbers are self-consciously presentational.
“Motown” also suffers from the fact that it was written by Gordy, himself. As such, the character of Berry Gordy is never presented as being in the wrong, and ironically becomes a thoroughly static, stock character. Leading man Chester Gregory is, unfortunately, not strong enough in the role to pull off anything interesting with such a wooden, Mary Sue-esque character.
Fortunately, “Motown” does feature some delightful performances, including that of the versatile orchestra, led by Darryl Archibald. Allison Semmes is divine as Diana Ross, not only nailing the singer’s breathy voice but also providing a strong element of charm both in and out of the musical numbers. Jesse Nager, as Smokey Robinson, manages to break out of the trap of shallow characterization with a dash of roguish, likable humor.
The highlight performance, though, may just be the recreation of the sounds and moves of Jackson 5-era Michael Jackson – no small feat – by J.J. Batteast and Leon Outlaw, Jr., alternating.
“Motown the Musical” is an uneven production that skates by on the nostalgia of its musical numbers, but it manages to be fun, light, and entertaining, even if it doesn’t achieve any further heights.