On Stage: Motown: The Musical

One of the most ambitious and entertaining musicals of the modern era is now playing at the Fox Theatre.

“Motown: The Musical” is ambitious in that it covers a two-decade time span to tell the story of Motown record company, founder Berry Gordy, and snippets from the lives of musicians Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. All the while incorporating 60 classic tunes from the era.

It’s entertaining because, well, it features 60 classic Motown hits; a rocking orchestra; flashy lights, costumes and multimedia backdrop;  and a cast of incredibly talented singers/actors.

Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5 in a scene from MoTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour (c) Joan Marcus, 2014

Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5 in a scene from “Motown The Musical” First National Tour.
(c) Joan Marcus, 2014

The show begins in 1983 during rehearsals for Motown’s 25th anniversary celebration. Back in his Los Angeles home, label founder Berry Gordy (Clifton Oliver) isn’t sure he wants to take part in the festivities. His company is in a slump and may have to be sold because he can’t compete with the major labels who keep scooping up all his major talent.

The story then shifts briefly to 1938 for a childhood vignette then fast-forwards to 1957 as Berry leaves his job at a Detroit auto factory to pursue his dream to be a songwriter. While he has some early success, the unfair business practices of the record industry causes Berry to approach his family for a loan so he can start his own company.

Berry quickly hooks up with talent like Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager) and Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse) and the hits just keep on coming. Act I deals with the volatile years from 1962-’68 as the artists deal with racial inequality and threats as they tour the South and ends with the death of Martin Luther King and a powerful performance by Muse of “What’s Going On?”

Act II opens in the still unsettled sixties but then moves into the seventies and the addition of new talent like The Jackson Five (on opening night the role of young Michael Jackson was played to perfection by Leon Outlaw Jr. The role is also played by Reed L. Shannon). As Berry tries to keep his artists happy — Marvin wants to move from pop music to more socially relevant songs — he also has to deal with challenges from other, larger record companies.

Another key thread in this musical mosaic is Berry’s relationship with singer Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) and his push to move her from Supremes lead singer to solo star. You knew there had to be a love story somewhere in this epic tale.

“Motown: The Musical” is one of the most energetic, exhilarating shows I’ve seen lately. There are too many musical highlights to focus on one or two. All of the lead actors, and many of the ensemble, have amazing voices. The band was loud and sharp. The colorful costumes ranged from the simple to the outrageous. The show makes good use of sets and video. And the music, of course, is timeless.

“Motown: The Musical” runs through Nov. 30. http://www.fabulousfox.com/


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