Every empire has a legend about its own beginnings, and this new musical purports to tell the rise and fall of Motown’s founding father, Berry Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon). But even if the book (by Gordy himself) falls short of legendary status, the memorable music demonstrates the enduring magic of Motown.
The book, based on the actual book by Gordy, “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown,” with some discreet script consultation by David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan, traces Motown’s story, more or less through Gordy’s eyes, in flashback, as he tries to decide whether to be part of a 1983 television special about his legacy. His musings take us from when the record label was just a pipedream of a scheme concocted by a Detroit guy who couldn’t settle down with a real career, to its growth into a magnet for up-and-coming artists like Smokey Robinson (a smooth-voiced Charl Brown) to its establishment as a star-making machine for youngsters like Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae) and eventually Michael Jackson (Raymong Luke, at the performance I attended; the role rotates), to – finally – its decline into the place everyone graduated from on their way to the big time.
The plot’s a foregone conclusion, and the writers have treated it primarily as a vehicle to get to the next song. The dialogue is stiff, more often ponderous than profound or even peppy, and – with a few exceptions, such as the slow-building relationship between Ross and Gordy – it’s designed to hustle the cast and audience as quickly as possible from A to B. Making that one-note trip harder, however, is the sheer star power that has to be packed into that Motown trajectory, as the likes of Marvin Gaye (Bryan Tyrell Clark), Gladys Knight (Tiffany Janene Howard), even Rick James (Eric LaJuan Summers), and the Temptations, the Commodores, the Four Tops and countless more make their appearances in the story.
And that procession is, of course, the point. Jukebox musicals are generally no better than (and usually not as good as) the music that gives them their raison d'être. And taking a whole record label, rather than a single group, as its inspiration means that Motown has an enormous catalogue of music and a cavalcade of performers (as well as several decades of flashy costumes, smart stepping and period stage sets) to fit into a mere three hours. On this score, the show succeeds fabulously. The program lists (in alphabetical order) a staggering 57 songs, from “ABC” to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” with plenty of favorites like "Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Mercy, Mercy Me,” “Please Mr. Postman” and, as the compilation infomercials say, many, many more. And every single one gets its due for at least a verse or two from the musically gifted cast, who seems to enjoy reprising these classics almost as much as the audience relishes reliving them.
In addition to the leads, Ryan Shaw stands out as the adult Stevie Wonder (we also see the star when he’s still a wunderkind), but all the vocal performances are strong and well staged. What’s more, the audience (at least on the night I attended) clearly saw the show as one great big exuberant sing-along, and the cast seemed to be eating up the exuberant participation. Which raises the questions of why producers bothers to create a jukebox musical at all, if what everyone is interested in is the songs on the jukebox, and not the not-always-happy story that’s gluing them together?