Review: “MOTOWN the Musical” brings label’s greatest hits in a nostalgic trip down memory lane

North American touring production of Tony-nominated musical makes its Montreal premiere June 19th-24th at Place des Arts

Nya Trysha (Martha Reeves) & Cast of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. © Joan Marcus

In the wake of announcing the arrival of the Tony-winning “Beautiful: the Carole King Musical” at Place des Arts this upcoming February 2019, evenko and Broadway Across Canada treat Montreal audiences to another jukebox spectacle this summer.

MOTOWN” is the rag-to-riches story of Berry Gordy, the music mogul who founded the eponymous Detroit record label and with it launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and other sensations who dominated the radio charts of the 1960’s and 70’s. Written and adapted by Gordy from his published autobiography “To Be Loved”, the stage musical sketches a portrait of the business magnate while presenting a procession of hit songs from the memorable Motown catalogue. It’s fast and it’s furious – and it’s feel-good fun.

This express musical conveyer belt first transports us back to the true events of 1983 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium where the legendary Motown recording artists gathered for a 25th anniversary celebration in tribute to the man that discovered them – except that Gordy (here played by Kenneth Mosley), defeated by his crumbled empire and angered at the protégés who abandoned him for bigger contracts, has refused to make his appearance at the party.

As colleagues arrive at his Hollywood home to plead with him to attend the commemorative affair, he is visited by the ghosts of his past to remind him of his trajectory to success. The flashbacks that follow give a glimpse into the professional and personal life of Gordy – including his romantic relationship with Diana Ross (Trenyce), his friendship with Smokey Robinson (Justin Reynolds) and Marvin Gaye (Matt Manuel), and his ongoing court battles with the influential songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Layering Gordy’s memoir is a musical retrospective, making for a kinetic retelling of a story of a cultural phenomenon.

Kenneth Mosley (Berry Gordy) in MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. © Joan Marcus

Leading the North American touring company is Kenneth Mosley as protagonist Berry Gordy, who anchors the show in embodying the famed imprisario’s deep passion for his life’s work. Mosley, of immaculate vocals, plays opposite another powerhouse: former American Idol Season 2 contestant Trenyce as Diana Ross, who blazingly capturing the Supremes frontwoman’s journey to solo stardom. Other major players in the production include Justin Reynolds as Smokey Robinson and Matt Manuel as Marvin Gaye, who contribute in bringing the trademark soul-meets-pop Motown sound to the production with their distinctive and equally thrilling tenor voices.

Many of the star turns, however, (the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Commodores, the Marvelettes, Rick James, Jermaine Jackson and so on, all the way up to Stevie Wonder) are featured roles taken on by the large and versatile ensemble of 25. Among them, it is the young Kai Calhoun (who alternates performances with Chase Phillips), who most readily brings down the house with a riveting portrayal of Michael Jackson. The “The Love You Save/I Want You Back/ABC” medley was a conspicuous crowd favourite. The major request of the night was for more Jackson Five.

Kai Calhoun as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5 in MOTOWN THE MUSICAL © Joan Marcus

It should be noted that MOTOWN is not exactly a concert – in theatre parlance, it’s a “jukebox musical”, a formulaic spectacle made up of familiar songs from a particular group or era, loosely held together by a storyline. This Tony-nominated Broadway baby’s arguably a bit more substantive on the acting than, say, 80’s glam show Rock of Ages or ABBA fanfare Mamma Mia, but Gordy’s book still comes across as paper thin, leaving discerning audiences with more questions than answers in getting to know the mysterious figure behind the iconic music. Plot and character development are bound to take a blow when you attempt to arbitrarily pack and awkwardly interweave 50+ tunes into a coherent narrative.

I have many a qualm when it comes to the jukebox genre due to the scrimp storytelling that often eventuates (as is the case), but MOTOWN will still have some skeptics happily converted for its 2 hours of pageantry with its high decibel acts of vocal acrobacy, energetically executed choreography, fourth wall-breaking interludes, and delectable slices of African-American history. Act I closer “War/What’s Going On”, in bringing to the forefront the juxtaposing civil rights movement of the 60’s, is a highlight of the night. Unfortunately the backdrop of social and political unrest is never engaged with great measure, but the powerful number, among other poignant snippets of script, stands in poignant reflection of changing times in America and in celebration of the groundbreaking music that proceeded to transcend race.

Kenneth Mosley (Berry Gordy) and Trenyce (Diana Ross) in MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. © Joan Marcus, 2017

I hesitate to give the MOTOWN the “gotta see” grade – unless you’re indeed in it for the earnest delight of spectacle and the nostalgic trip down memory lane. The production value is elevated for a touring production: a cavalcade of dazzling costumes (the design is by Emilio Sosa) and smooth-sliding LED screens (projection design is by Daniel Brodie) are among the visual elements that elicit gasps. But, what we ultimately applaud are the singable segments, each as resonant as the next, as messages of love, loyalty, and unity attempt to seep through. The music, in its recognizable orchestrations – even if severely truncated at times – is indeed the star of the show, and the voices that carry it are golden. You’ll find crowd-pleasing, easy entertainment at Place des Arts through this Sunday, June 24th.

Broadway Across Canada and evenko present


Where: Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts
(175 St-Catherine Street West, Montreal, H2X 1Y9)

When: Tuesday, June 19th to Sunday, June 24th, 2018

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes (including one 20 minute intermission)

Admission: $46.55 to $139.55

Box Office: | (514) 842-2112

Performed in English




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