by MIKE CHAIKEN
I’m of two minds when it comes to “Motown the Musical,” which opened Tuesday night at The Bushnell in Hartford.
I liked some of it and I had some serious problems with the rest of it.
Like most of us of a certain age, I love the classic hits of the Motown catalogue. And any chance I get to hear this music live, I jump at it.
And the cast and orchestra in this production do great justice to the music that has created so many memories for so many people all over the world.
The orchestra, conducted by Darryl Archibald, really kicks butt…injecting electric energy behind the fine singers up and down the cast list.
That said, if I could have fast-forwarded through the “drama” that tied the songs together, I feel I would have been better served by the show.
Honestly, I just wasn’t feeling this script, which didn’t feel worthy of a Broadway production.
The book for the musical was written by Motown founder Berry Gordy, who built the show around his biography, “To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown.”
And the main character of the musical is Gordy himself.
Therein lies the problem.
The story of Motown is a great story of American pop culture and culture in general. Diehard and casual fans would agree that Motown did wonders to help bridge the racial divide between black America and white America.
The problem with “Motown the Musical” is Gordy uses the show as reminder that he was a “GREAT” visionary and that Motown was “IMPORTANT.”
In many ways, the script reads more like an introduction to a stock IPO rather than a drama.
Did we really need to spend any time on stage bemoaning the rise of big record companies vs. independent labels likeMotown?
The show also doesn’t know what it wants to be at times. Occasionally, it’s a biography. At other moments, it’s a “drama.” Other times, it veers into comedy. The tone is all over the place.
The script also doesn’t know what to do with the characters, who are (or were) living breathing human beings. Everyone—including the character of Berry (played by Chester Gregory) and Motown legend Diana Ross (played by Allison Seemes)—are mere cartoons—endowed with certain traits to differentiate them from the other “names” on stage. The cast—which had to bounce from character to character with barely a beat inbetween– did a yeoman’s job in breathing life into their lines but, there’s only so much one could do with the material they were provided with.
The character of Gordy himself is also a problem. Too much of the script is intended to justify Gordy’s actions—that often were criticized by those who left his circle. The dramatic tension arises from Berry’s intent to dictate how history will perceive him and not through his interactions with the plot and characters.
The book, which spans 25-plus years, also tries to accomplish too much. The show was nearly three hours long with an intermission. And with so many years and so little time, the history felt like a visit to the “Hall of Presidents” at Disney World.
It’s clear the show needs some editing, rewrites, and some polish.
For many in the audience, however, the story line was entirely beside the point. They wanted the music. And when their favorites cued up, those at the Bushnell on March 22 were clapping along, singing along, and when they had the chance, they were “Dancing in the Streets (or aisles).”
And the musical performances are superb all throughout. Semmes did a great job singing the works of Diana Ross. And Leon Outlaw, Jr., who was filling in Tuesday night as Michael Jackson, stole the show during his moments in the spotlight.
And the ensemble members who stepped up to the plate to take on the roles of the Four Tops, The Temptations, The Contours, the Miracles, the Jackson 5, the Commodores, and more all did an outstanding job shifting from group to group.
If your primary motive for heading out to The Bushnell to see “Motown the Musical” was to hear some good musicians and singers tackle some great music, the show is the perfect night out. It was definitely a crowd pleaser with the cast earning a standing ovation at the end of the night.
However, if you are looking for a more complete experience—a stage show with a great script, great acting performances, and great music, the show might not be your cup of tea. If you want to hear Motown music, you might be better served if you download some greatest hits collections instead.
I give “Motown the Musical” two-and-a-half stars out of four stars.
“Motown the Musical” continues at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
For tickets, go to bushnell.org or call (860)987-5900.
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com