Zippy, socially incendiary fun with a side of self-mythologizing: Motown the Musical in Chicago

Somewhere between the toxic camp of Dreamgirls and the theme park spectacle that is Motown the Musical, the real story of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross lives.

Currently playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the Broadway transplant tells the tale of Motown Records’ founding and (ostensibly) the true life story of its chief mastermind Gordy and of his key preoccupation/inspiration call-her-MISS-Ross.

(Yes, this Metro Detroit resident – yours truly – had to travel to Chicago to see a musical about the Motor City. Ah, show biz. Why this tuner isn’t in permanent residence at Detroit’s Fox Theatre I will never know.)

What I enjoyed about the show is how seamlessly it blends all of the magical hits of the Motown era into one narrative, running the gamut from Joe Louis’ historic title bout victory to the Detroit race riots to Motown’s iconic 25th anniversary television special.

The ensemble is unbelievable. A relatively small cast literally portrays hundreds of characters, many of them etched into our collective memories: Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and on and on.

For the most part, the cast – who must have a thousand dressers backstage and racks upon racks of costumes and wigs – avoids devolving into cheap mimicry, giving us fully realized, albeit brief, glimpses into the lives of these pop music celebrities.

A few moments made me wince, particularly the portrayal of a young Stevie Wonder, but that may have just been my oversensitivity at the strange chuckles from an audience who seemed to find Wonder’s blindness a source of amusement.

I don’t know how this cast does this jam-packed, high energy, Jerome Robbins-on-caffeine-pills show night after night. They must have the aerobic health of decathletes.

Clifton Oliver as Gordy and Allison Semmes as Ross acquit themselves in a lovely fashion with roles that are just a bit too idolatrous. Given that Gordy is a producer, I guess that adoration is unsurprising.

Semmes gives a nuanced performance, introducing as much critique of Ross’ famed ambition as she was likely allowed, evolving from 17-year-old hopeful to seasoned diva before our very eyes.

Other standouts are Nicholas Christopher who gives us a sweet-hearted, nervous-headed Smokey Robinson (providing the show’s best comic moments) and Jarran Muse whose Marvin Gaye is both epic talent and maddening flake.

This isn’t a bad show. In fact it’s quite delightful. However, it is too long by at least 30 minutes. And at times the manner in which fairly significant historical moments are reduced to song and dance amidst pretty fantastic digital projections is a little goofy.

I wanted to love this show. I wanted to leave the theater with all of these marvelous songs dancing through my head. At times, however, I felt pummeled by Gordy’s self-mythologizing, to the point I wanted to spend the rest of my life listening to hair metal.

Go for the spectacle, the amazing costumes, the brilliant use of light and minimalist set pieces, but prepare yourself for a marathon. The talented cast redeems a marginal book and does yeoman’s work reminding us why Motown’s canon was and is such zippy, socially incendiary fun.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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Return to Sweethaven: Sting’s The Last Ship in previews in Chicago (review)

For all intents and purposes, Sting has musicalized what is arguably his greatest album The Soul Cages – full of warmth and sadness and Celtic rhythms – in his new show The Last Ship in previews at Chicago’s Bank of America theater.

It is a thing of beauty.

Directed expertly by Joe Mantello (Love! Valour! Compassion! and Wicked) with an efficiently insightful book by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), The Last Ship paints the hardscrabble tale of an English community (based on Sting’s hometown experiences) whose sole industry – shipbuilding – has seen better days.

Against this backdrop, Gideon, who fled this life and the girl he loved (Meg), returns to find the son he never knew and the life he never wanted. Narrative tension comes from the “will they, won’t they” of Meg and Gideon resuming their romance. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I was pleasantly heartened by the believable outcome of that particular storyline.

The ensemble does marvelous work with Sting’s hypnotic score. The title song will be stuck in my head for weeks. And the key themes of class and faith and honoring one’s past will resonate with every viewer.

In fact, that is what works most wonderfully in this new production. Yes, the show anchors around a rather conventional love triangle, but the anxiety of a town trying to find its footing again as its chief economic foundation erodes is compellingly told.

Using minimalist design that evokes a number of locations (think “Jersey Boys” in the U.K.), Sting and Logan and Mantello populate this seaside village with a cast of characters that would not be out of place in Popeye’s Sweethaven.

Standouts in the cast include Michael Esper (“Gideon”), Rachel Tucker (“Meg”), Sally Ann Triplett (joyously Emily Watson-esque as cheeky “Peggy”), Jimmy Nail (sounding uncannily like Sting himself as “Jackie”), and Fred Applegate (“Father O’Brien”).

I’m not sure if it is kosher for one to critique a show still In previews … so don’t consider this a review. Rather, think of it as a shameless plug to go check out this fabulous, grounded, melodic production either in Chicago or when it magnificently sails to a town near you. It will be on Broadway soon.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.20140611-225534-82534412.jpg