The touring production of Broadway's Motown: The Musical, which documents the history of the famous record label started by Berry Gordy, serves as a wonderful trip down memory lane, despite a few bumps in the road. The main stumbling block is that the show’s book is written by none other than the real Berry Gordy, a man who made a career out promotion.
It’s no surprise then that Gordy makes himself the only-slightly-flawed hero of his own story, glossing over the opportunity for honest self-examination. Also, Gordy’s strength is writing songs, not dialogue, so like another luminary of the entertainment world, George Lucas, Gordy creates an amazing overall experience, but some of his lines can be eyebrow-raising.
His story, however, is compelling as it documents Gordy's (Julius Thomas III) passion, drive, and struggle to build and maintain an independent record label while fighting the music industry’s racial segregation in the early part of his career and its commercialization in the latter. The show, now at the Pantages through June 7, also explores his professional and romantic relationship with Diana Ross (understudy Ashley Tamar Davis for Allison Semmes), his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager), and his friction with Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), one of the many Motown artists who populate the piece.
From the opening number’s visual and vocal pyrotechnics, the show exudes a vibrancy and energy that is equally reflected in David Korins’ eye-catching set design and Daniel Brodie’s slick projections. Natasha Katz’s colorful lighting is as nimble as Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams’s dynamic choreography, which is executed crisply by the effervescent cast. That cast also pulls off runway model-worthy costume changes, showcasing Esosa’s stupendous designs that clothe the actors in a rainbow of period hues.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright skillfully shepherds the sizable cast through lighting-quick transitions between numbers, maintaining energy throughout. Sometimes those transitions are a bit too fast, though, as 60 Motown hits are shoehorned into two acts and performed in truncated fashion, which can feel like the radio station being changed before the song ends. Still, highlights such as “Dancing in the Street,” “My Girl,” “What’s Going On” and the Jackson 5 numbers keep the audience grooving along.
Thomas III has a pleasant and powerful voice, as well as the charisma to humanize this music pioneer’s struggles. Davis proves a feisty foil to him, while Nager exudes upbeat cheerfulness and Muse embodies a restless, soulful energy. The ensemble that surrounds them is equally solid, with standouts including Leon Outlaw, Jr. as young Michael Jackson, Martina Sykes as songstress Mary Wells and Jamarice Daughtry as record producer Mickey Stevenson.
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GO! Hollywood Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through June 7. (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com
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