Rant ‘N’ Roll: Motown – The Musical

MANHATTAN, NY—The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street, built in 1910, now houses the power, glory and soul of 2648 West Grand Blvd., in Detroit, where Berry Gordy built his empire and recorded some of the greatest names in soul-music history. The original two-story building is now a museum but the art that emanates from this Broadway stage is more kinetic.

This almost three-hour blockbuster squeezes 50 songs in shortened versions (had they had all verses of all songs, we would have been there over six hours). Some of the moments are priceless. The sing-off between The Four Tops and the tall tan talented Temptations (as they used to be called) is a galvanizing opener. Both versions of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (Marvin Gaye’s and Gladys Knight & The Pips’) are juxtaposed. You get Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Martha & The Vandellas, Mary Wells (“My Guy”) and The Supremes. Because it’s adapted from Gordy’s 1994 autobiography (To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories Of Motown), it’s all Gordy all night and he, predictably, comes off as somewhat heroic. In a delicious early spot, he sells two songs he wrote (“Lonely Teardrops” and “Reet Petite”) to Jackie Wilson whose over-the-top personality is hilariously recreated by Eric LaJuan Summers. The fact that these songs are among the greatest rock ‘n’ roll hits of all time adds profundity to its all-too-brief moment. This is, when you get right down to it, a scintillating slice of baby-boomer heaven and it’s easy to just let these wonderful songs wash through you with a glazed eye and a curiosity for what’s coming next.

In other words, it moves, it grooves. And the story, as self-serving as it may be to Gordy, is fascinating. American History 101. And it rhymes. To his credit, Gordy doesn’t skimp on some of the skirmishes he had with his artists (he also wrote the book for this presentation). His love affair with Diana Ross provides some steam. Most of the songs stand alone. “War,” by The Temptations, opens the second act in dynamite fashion. Other songs propel the plot forward. “Money (That’s What I Want),” another classic rocker written by Gordy, known now mostly for its Beatle version, is used to explain his business acumen (he was also a boxer early on). Some of the darker moments of this history are ignored completely. Marvin Gaye (as played by the terrific Bryan Terrell Clark) mentions his father and the line takes on ominous overtones only if you know that his religioso nutball of a dad murdered him (not a subject for a feel-good jukebox musical like this).

Feeling good is what this night is all about. During Ashford & Simpson’s enduring “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand,” the audience is instructed to hold the hand of whoever’s sitting next to you and raise it in the air. And we do. Audience members are invited on stage to sing with Diana Ross. And the moments with a young preternaturally gifted Michael Jackson are captivating.

The cultural significance of Motown’s ascension is alluded to but not really dwelled upon and it is this very aspect that makes its rise so important as it occurred during the nascent civil rights struggle. Smokey Robinson put it best in 2009. “I recognized that because I lived it,” he told the Times-Picayune in Louisiana. “I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the music and we would go back and they’d be integrated, the kids dancing together and holding hands. It was a wonderful thing to witness.”

That about says it all. And Motown: The Musical is also a “wonderful thing to witness.” I walked out of the theatre in a daze, thoughts coming in waves, mostly about how this music, created decades ago, is still so vital and so alive.