Thursday, April 14, 2016

Get Up Off Your Seat .. and Gimme Some of that Ol' Soul Clapping!

                                                        courtesy of the Jones Family website
by Susan Kepecs
The Jones Family Singers – an old-school gospel outfit out of the tiny town of Markham, Texas, a few miles from Bay City, on the humid subtropical Gulf Coast plain – are no small town sound.  For the last couple of years the Jones Family’s been spreading the good news at university theaters, big city culture palaces, jazz festivals and nightclubs around the world.  The family patriarch, Bishop Fred Jones, Sr., doctor of theology, is the pastor (and founder) of Markham’s Mount Zion Pentecostal Holiness Church; with his two sons and five daughters, including lead singer Alexis Jones, he’s traveled a long road – starting in the ‘80s – to get to this place  The Jones Family Singers bring their bursting-with-backbeat sound to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall next Friday, April 29.
The Jones family’s something of a throwback to the early ‘60s, when gospel was the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement – and when rousing, hand-clapping gospel by the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Sister Rosetteta Tharpe and the Staple Singers played on R n’ B radio stations like WVON in Chicago, where I grew up, right alongside the great soul singers, every last one of them rooted in the sounds of the black church – James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Sam and Dave, Garnett Mimms, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett – the list goes on. This is flat-out glory music, and the Jones family – say hallelujah! – brings it all back home.
A whole lotta history’s gone down since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.  There’s a tension today between religious and secular that keeps the spiritual side of black music pretty much segregated in the church.  And there’s a movie about the Jones Family Singers – The Jones Family Will Find a Way, directed by Austin-based indie production company Arts+Labor (it premiered at SXSW in 2014) -- that chronicles the Jones Singers’ long haul to break into the limelight.  Along the way, the movie exposes that tension.  Austin writer Michael Corcoran, who’s passionate about gospel (I’ve never spoken with him, but he’s got a terrific website: http://www.michaelcorcoran.net), put this band on the map.  And in the movie he tells them – over and over again, in different ways – to dial down the Jesus lyrics and treat their music “more like a soul revue.” 
They never do – the Jones family’s unabashedly on a prosletysing mission, though they accepted Corcoran’s attempts to push them out of the church and into the arms of a global secular audience for the wide-open opportunity it gives them to spread the word.  But Corcoran is spot-on.  Whether you’re a believer or you don’t have a religious bone in your body (like me), the Jones Family Singers are sweet inspiration.

I interviewed Bishop Jones on the phone a few weeks ago. 

CulturalOyster: In the movie you say your grandmother was your first inspiration – and in the movie you’re based in Texas.  Is that where it all started, or are your early roots someplace else?

Bishop Jones: My early roots are in Louisiana.  I’m originally from a little town, Oakdale, Louisiana, made famous by a giant prison break.  That’s where I got my inspiration growing up.  Grandma, she wasn’t in the church choir – she was a deaconess, sort of like the leading prayer woman.  Her expertise was in praying.  People would come to her from miles around just to have her lay her hands on them.  The lord dealt with her a lot. 


CulturalOyster:  I have the impression that you write most of your own songs – is that right?

Bishop Jones:  Yes, that’s right.  The whole family pitches in.  If one of us comes up with an idea we get together and work out the music and then I write the verses, I put all of the verses to the song.  They say “dad, can you put a verse to this?”  I take the song and go in the other room and sit back and listen, and being the preacher I am my inspiration comes from the spirit or the scripture, and I sit down and write the verse so it has congruency with the tune.


CulturalOyster:  Your music comes from the heart – there’s nothing academic about it, but does anyone in the family have formal musical training?  And what about influences – who do you listen to, who’s influenced your sound?

Bishop Jones:  For me, I just feel it.  My younger son went to school for a while and worked with the music department in Jackson, Texas, but for the most part what we do is just inspired by the moment.  But yes, we are influenced – Mavis Staples for sure, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar – a lot of the older gospel singers influence us ‘cause that’s the era I came up in.


CulturalOyster:  I watched the movie twice – you fought hard for a long time to get to success, but you just kept on keepin’ on, in the face of a lot of different kinds of adversity. Why do you think was it so hard – why did it take so long – for you to get established? 

Bishop Jones:  Well, I like to tell people it’s because I adhere to a standard.  I don’t want to compromise to please somebody.  I follow what I wholeheartedly believe the bible to say.  Sometimes that’s not popular with a lot of folk.  As a case in point, a gentlemen told me “when you get on the stage leave the messages open for people to make up their own mind.”  And I told him I didn’t come to sing a song, I want it to be clear who I’m talking about, I want it to be explicit, this is where I stand.  I’m not trying to make you be me, but you invited me, you wanted to hear my story, so hear me out.


CulturalOyster:  In the movie you keep trying to break into secular venues and land recording contracts.  You keep getting turned down.  At one point you sound really frustrated, and you say “I can’t reach you if I can’t reach you.” What’s the overarching message you want to reach people with?

Bishop Jones: The first thing I want to say is that I can’t reach you if I can’t get up to you, if you can’t see where I’m coming from you won’t know where I’m coming from.  I have to get up close to you, I have to get in your confidence to share my side of the story, so you have your view and you have mine and you can see which is most advantageous for you.  What I really want to get out to people is that God is really concerned about their wellbeing.  It’s about communication.  I’m His communicator.  The Father wants you to know that you haven’t done bad enough that he doesn’t want anything to do with you, he loves you no matter what and he wants that fellowship with you.


CulturalOyster: In the movie, Michael Corcoran says you play the perfect gospel music for atheists.  And at the end of the movie when you’re at Lincoln Center Outdoors you say you can only do so much within the sacred walls – “if you’re gonna win the world you gotta take that giant step.”  But the movie, over and over again points to the tension between church music and the secular world.  So I’m wondering, now that you’re reaching so many people outside the sacred walls, are your lyrics a little more secular?  Or is that a place you don’t want to go? 

Bishop Jones: I think about Michael’s perspective, very much different from mine – I already knew what road I’m taking, but that’s one of the things we knew at the start.  He has a different mind set, but he’s still precious to God.
Our lyrics are not getting more secular, because we don’t want to lose sight of the objective.  We learn to grow where we’re planted, and we deal with each session with the greatest of care ‘cause we know the mission we’re on.  We don’t lean toward secular, but the door is opening.  It’s not to conform to the other side, but to show the other side that we can come over here and show you a great time, and show you the source of your very existence, and it don’t have to be so dogmatic. 
Young people might not know the Nightingales, or the Dixie Hummingbirds – they may only know Michael Jackson, or the Temptations.  So we take that music sometimes and lay out our own lyrics on top of it and we’ll say “this may sound like something you know, but pay attention to the words,” and we’ll take ‘em right on that journey.  And I say this without hype, they enjoy it.  When it’s all said and done most of the time they won’t let us go out in the crowd after a show, they say we’ll get mobbed.  But I’m a people person, so I get up and go out there.


CulturalOyster: At one point in the movie, before things turn around and start getting good for you, you ask, “am I relevent for today, or am I yesterday’s news?”  Seems to me you have to be relevant today. We haven’t won Dr. King’s battles yet, and in his time there was a lot of secular gospel – the feel, the beat, the inflections, but not the lyrics.  That kind of music brought a lot of people together who aren’t together now.  And we need that.

Bishop Jones:  Everywhere we go, I do sing a song that’s not ours.  I say y’all are looking at the news like I look at it, in the Senate, in the police.  If everybody operated with this one thing I’m about to sing about it would eradicate all this trouble.  That song is “What the World Needs Now is Love,” and I’m calling for all people, if you’re black, white, Plutoinian, or Martian, to feel it.  And when we sing this song I see the message resonate. 


CulturalOyster: What’s coming up for you – travels, recordings – what’s the future? 

Bishop Jones: Well, we’re getting ready to go to Minnesota, and from there to Tel Aviv, we’ll be in the Holy Land for ten days touring throughout various areas, and then we’ll be back in the US, including in Madison – yes, we’ve got to come to Madison and Milwaukee.


CulturalOyster: Is there anything you want to talk about that I didn’t ask you?

Bishop Jones:  Yes.  First I want you to know I like your very interesting questions.  And I want people to know they can get the documentary online, at http://arts-and-labor.com/jfsmovie/
I want people to know we’re just regular people on a mission.  People need to know they can come up and talk to us, hug our neck, bring your camera and take pictures – a lot of times theaters don’t like that, but I say let people do it, they’re here, they want to see us.  We want our message to get out and somebody may see us and get inspired.  But most of all we’re regular people, we need a hug, a handshake, a good ol’ “hey, how you doin’?”

                                                        


 


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Dance Review: Alonzo King's LINES Ballet at the Wisconsin Union Theater

O'Malley and Babatunji.     Photo by Quinn B. Wharton 

by Susan Kepecs 
Alonzo King, founder and artistic director of San Francisco-based LINES Ballet, whick took the stage at Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on Friday night, March 11, is one of the great revolutionary artists of our times.  What makes that so is actually quite simple; King takes the speedy, line-lengthened, plotless, “leotard production” breakthroughs of Balanchine’s mid-twentieth century American ballet and strips away virtually all of the artifice – the formalist conventions, rooted in court dancing from the days of Louis XIV and written in stone two hundred-plus years later by Marius Petipa – the curtseys, the tutus, the pointework, the exclusive use of specific, ritualized steps bearing French names.  
People sometimes take King for a “contemporary” dancemaker, but that’s missing the point; there’s a glossy commerciality (like what you see from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago) in what’s commonly called contemporary dance that’s utterly absent in King’s work.  King’s astoundingly elastic, postmodernist, off-kilter choreography sometimes touches more lightly than others on straight-up neoclassical vocabulary, but it’s ballet nonetheless.  LINES dancers, as King often says, are virtuoso musicians who play their bodies as instruments, turning sound into energy.  And his Terpsichorean orchestra is honed to perfection with rigorous ballet technique.  The result brings classical dance into the global, multicultural twenty-first century.
This approach requires over the top boldness, both physical and emotional, from the dancers. The works on the March 11 program were risky in additional ways.  In the hands of a lesser choreographer, creating a new work to Bach’s double violin concerto in D minor – Balanchine used this in his most beloved ballet, “Concerto Barocco” – would be downright dangerous. But structurally and texturally, King’s piece is sparklingly unique. Yet King is acutely aware of what it means to make a dance to this particularly loaded piece of music, sprinkling his ballet throughout with winking references to Balanchine’s work. 
In the first, Vivace movement, Balanchine has a corps of eight women on pointe, dancing in orderly lines with two female soloists representing the violins.  In King’s piece nine LINES dancers fill the space with dynamic patterns, fronted by two women (Kara Wilkes and YuJin Kim, both remarkably fluid), plus the the bouyantly powerful Babatunji.  A smidge of black church glory shines through; where Balanchine’s first movement ends with a courtly bow, King’s company leaps in unison, then spins, arms raised to the heavens.   
The Largo movement picks up the daisy chain motif Balanchine loved to use in his ballets, including “Concerto Barocco” – but in place of “Barocco”’s corps plus pas de deux, King uses Wilkes and Kim with Robb Beresford and Michael Montgomery to create eyepopping moments of harmonious dissonance with two (shifting) pairs of dancers doing different pas simultaneously.  The full company returns for the Allegro, flowing in and out of unison; at one point the dancers are all violins, flying forward one after the other, arms carving through space as the bow strikes the strings.  And King has kicked the complex geometry of the first movement up a notch; you see not just the dancers, but the negative spaces between them, vibrating with movement.  The Allegro demands nothing less – King’s patterns spring from his deconstructivist approach, but Balanchine’s more formal dance has the same vibration.  
The very short “Men’s Quintet,” to a contemporary violin-based concerto by Edgar Meyer with saxophone virtuoso Pharoah Sanders, is an excerpt from a longer work, The Radius of Convergence.  I’d have preferred seeing the Quintet in context, but what I did see was a showcase of male dance prowess.  Soloist Michael Montgomery, a force of nature, moves in counterpoint to a corps of four men (Robb Beresford, Shauaib Elhassan, Jeffrey Van Sciver, Babatunji).  The four often danced in a line behind Montgomery; at one point they stood still, lined up in profile, each with a hand on the next man’s head, like a row of ancient warrior sculptures.  In feel if not entirely in look, “Men’s Quintet” is as modernist, in the sense of Graham or Ailey, as the Violin Concerto is post-Balanchine, postmodern ballet. 
The very idea of dancing to wild sounds is radical – a hair’s breadth or two from dancing to the music of the spheres.  In the 43-minute Biophony King goes there, with a remarkable score by Bernie Krause, who’s spent decades recording natural soundscapes in wild places.  Krause coined the term “biophony,” which refers to “the collective signature produced at one time by all sound-producing organisms in a given habitat.”   
Krause’s score miraculously contains all the myriad nuances of the world’s endangered habitats – the animals, the winds, the rains, even trees creaking.  And LINES’ dancers use this score exactly as they use the Bach, or any other piece of music, riding its waves or moving against, through, or around them.  
Biophany is very balletic — there’s a greater number of (artifice-less) saut de chats, coupe jete turns and pirouettes than usual for a LINES piece.  King talks about ballet’s ultimate roots in nature, and this observation links back to his point.  
Biophany is also a much more organic piece than either the Bach or the Quintet.  It’s not a leotard ballet, but the production values are just a whisper – Axel Morgenthaler’s engaged lighting and Robert Rosenwasser’s gently nature-colored costumes suggest rather than illustrate the ecologies of the score.  You can’t analyze Biophany, you just have to sit back and take in its diaphanous lushness.  Having worked in some wild places myself, I can attest to the fact that King and company have nailed the essences of the places represented in the ballet’s eight segments.  The Borneo rainforest in “Tempestas” breathes with plant and animal life; “Mare Nostrum” captures the furling and unfurling action of the sea on life within; at the Kenyan watering hole (“Still Life at the Equator”) Laura O’Malley and Babatunji as prey and predator are caught in the same breath-catching exchange that sends chills down your spine when the lions go after the antelopes on National Geographic specials.  In the haunting Alaska segment, “Nunaviq,” Courtney Henry, floating through a string loose arabesque turns while wolves howl and birds chirp, isn’t a creature at all, but a quintessential nature spirit.  




Monday, March 21, 2016

"Encore" Proves Madison Loves Ballet



Cohen, in Lancero Op. 1  © Kat Stiennon 2016

by Susan Kepecs
If anyone thought Madison Ballet cancelled its spring season early in February because this city is just too small to support a company of professional ballet dancers on season contract, “Encore” – an independent choreographers’ showcase put together by the dancers of the shuttered company in two and a half weeks, in the aftermath of the cancellation announcement – proved them dead wrong.  “Encore’”s three shows (March 4-5) packed Overture’s Promenade Hall, generously donated by the Overture Center for this benefit performance.  Yes, it’s pretty late to be posting a review of a show that happened more than two weeks ago – I’ve been laid up with the devil’s own cold and a case of antibiotic-induced brain fog.  But the local importance of this performance merits a review nonetheless.  I attended the final, evening show on March 5, which was sold out – many people were turned away.  Those lucky enough to get in were wildly enthusiastic, whistling and cheering even more than the audience with which I saw the touring production of Motown the Musical at Overture Hall on March 1. 
That happy "Encore" audience owes a debt of gratitude to second-year Madison Ballet dancer Elizabeth Cohen, the lead organizer of this self-funded, collaborative effort.  And also to the rest of the dancers, who, in the face of job loss, pulled together one more time to present professional ballet in Madison.  They couldn’t let go without one more show – the bond that forms when you dance with people every day for a year, or several, is tough to break – and it’s that unity that makes a group of disparate dancers look like a company.  Madison Ballet may soon rise, like the Phoenix, from its own ashes, but we will never see this whole, particular group of dancers together again.  That, plus the fact that “Encore” was also a retirement performance for Rachelle Butler and Jason Gomez, made for a particularly poignant evening.
Thirteen short works were on the program.  To make a blanket statement, the quality was uneven.  That’s exactly what you’d expect from a showcase like “Encore,” presenting works by young dancers, many of whom have never choreographed before.  But concerts of this sort offer a look at who the dancers in any given company really are – what interests them, and how they prefer to move.  Stepping into the choreographer’s role pushes them to grow artistically.  And seeing works made by young dancers inevitably points toward the future of ballet.
Three of the pieces weren’t originals.  The short temporal space in which “Encore” was put together, coupled with the desire most ballerinas have to dance the great traditional roles, led to the choice of a pair of grand pas de deux in the public domain.  Shannon Quirk and Joe LaChance, who partnered her all year, danced the lush, formal wedding pas from Sleeping Beauty, following the Petipa choreography.  LaChance is not Quirk’s equal – his partnering, and his variation, were shaky.  But Quirk, though she looked tired, held her own in the demanding, balance-fraught pas – and her elegance and precise footwork in the old-fashioned Princess Aurora variation drew cheers from the audience. 
Cohen and Cyrus Bridwell recreated the Don Quijote Act III grand pas de deux (also after Petipa).  This is a well-matched pair, and their pas was neatly done.  Bridwell put some impressive loft into his bravura variation, but Cohen, formerly of Ballet Latino San Antonio, was unmistakably the star – utterly in her element, eyes sparkling, zipping through the saucy Kitri variation, fan flicking, one come-hither hand set defiantly on her hip.
Also in the Spanish vein, guest artist Jessica Lin offered a proud, flirtatious, flamenco-esque solo-with-chair, “Carmen Habanera” (to the eponymous piece from Bizet’s opera); it was choreographed by Edward Ellison, with whom she studied in New York.
Nine of the remaining ten dances were by Madison Ballet company members.  A couple of them were disappointing.  Phillip Ollenburg’s contemporary solo for Quirk was nicely evocative of a creature crawling from and returning to a habitat created with a string of LED lights reminiscent of sea phosphorous.  But strings of lights are becoming cliché these days, and the dance itself looked hastily put together, failing to take full advantage of Ollenburg’s own prodigious creativity or Quirk’s considerable chops off pointe.
Kristen Hammer used a country-western song with really trashy lyrics about spousal abuse for her piece “Trailor for Rent” (trailor?), and asked Annika Reikersdorfer, Abigail Henninger and Kelanie Murphy to interpret them literally.  The concept was sophomoric, but the contemporary ballet steps were nicely turned, and the dancers did a fine job with what they were given.
Several works were traditionally balletic.  Abigail Henninger’s “One,” a pretty ensemble piece (Rachelle Butler, Hammer, Quirk, Reikersdorfer, LaChance) led by Gomez, who’s never looked better, was built of upward-reaching movements set on an adagio / allegro structure, and possessed with a transcendant sense of calm. 
Kelanie Murphy also offered an ensemble ballet, “Looking Up,” which she set on Butler, Nancy Cole, Quirk, Reikersdorfer, LaChance, and Jackson Warring.  Nothing about “Looking Up” made it stand out, but it was a satisfyingly active piece of choreography, simple but light and feathery, without pointework but making full use of classical vocabulary.
We saw a completely different side of Murphy in her sparkling two-minute jitterbug tap duet with Warring to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes.”  It’s not the stuff of formal ballet repertory, but a pair of performers reveling in the delight of doing something they absolutely love is, without doubt, the purest form of dance there is. 
Warring, and Cohen, are two new choreographers to keep an eye on.  Cohen created a very short solo for herself, “Lancero Op. 1,” to a piano piece by local composer Glenn Sparks, who played it live.  In plain white leotard and tights, with a wide white shawl, Cohen, a superb ballet technician who hasn’t yet had many opportunities with Madison Ballet to show what she can do, flowed like liquid – a lithe spirit dancing free, on pointe.   
Warring’s very solid “Optimism” featured Cohen, Bridwell and LaChance in a dynamic love triangle.  “Optimism”’s narrative base, its contemporary, off-pointe style, its crazy, athletic lifts, its quickly shifting action, and the electronic score by cellist Zoe Keating reflected the influence of frequent Madison Ballet guest choreographer General McArthur Hambrick.  But its depth and substance also revealed Warring’s budding artistry in the choreographic realm.
Ballet veterans Gomez and Butler contributed noteworthy works that left me hoping both will continue to choreograph for Madison Ballet and other companies now that they’re retired from the stage. 
Gomez choreographed a lovely, very Latin pas de deux, “Lejos y Cerca,” for Henninger and himself (in street clothes) to a nuevo flamenco piece by the eclectic Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela.  “Lejos y Cerca” was a dancey, happy, triumph of a pas, full of high overhead lifts and dips; Gomez and Henninger smiled throughout.  
Rachelle Butler’s deliciously wild “Jerry’s Songs,” deeply rooted in Balanchine technique, was set to ‘60s soul. The concept’s not entirely original, since Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith did a fluffy neoclassical repertory piece, “Groovy,” to a set of ‘60s tunes a couple of years back.  But Butler’s dance was much more from-the-heart; she chose songs her father loves, and the work was dedicated to him. “Jerry’s Songs”’ simple boy-meets girl, relationship goes bad, girls have fun theme was done tongue-in-cheek.  In the first part, Henninger and Warring – a comic pair to begin with, since she’s tall and leggy, and he’s short (the mismatch is only visual) – stalked each other; Henninger repeatedly climbed up Warring’s back, snarling at him.  In the second section Cohen, Cole, Hammer, Murphy and Reikersdorfer pranced and spun with glee, heads bopping – and in the end Henninger got a new man, LaChance, who carried her offstage. 
Although she out-did him in the ‘60s department, Butler has always been Smith’s protégé, and Smith is a master choreographer.  For her farewell, Smith gave her permission to dance, partnered by Gomez, his luxurious, pure neoclassical Caccini pas de deux, to the Italian composer’s “Ave Maria.” The pas was choreographed on and for Butler in 2008; she reprised it in 2014.
There’s great chemistry between Butler and Gomez, which began when they were paired in Smith’s jazzy “Expressions” for Madison Ballet’s 2015 Repertory II.  That bond, strengthened by their mutual retirement, lent the dance a piercing sadness, heightened because Madison Ballet principal accompanist Marina Hegge, who knows these dancers well, played the piece live onstage.  Butler has always danced this pas beautifully, but has she ever had a partner as steady and handsome as Gomez?  Has her phrasing ever been so exquisite?  Gomez dipped and swirled her, then swept her into a lift; she extended a leg, foot impossibly pointed; its retarded journey to the floor went on forever.  I felt my throat catch.  I was sitting next to former Madison Ballet dancer Jessica Mackinson; there were tears in her eyes. 
 
Encore cast  © SKepecs 2016


Monday, March 7, 2016

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL Hits Close to the Mark

The Temptations (MoTOWN the Musical First National Tour)
© Joan Marcus 2014

By Susan Kepecs
When I was 18, my life’s ambition was to have a radio station called WSBR – W-Smokey Bill Robinson, you know, for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  I could just hear the purring station identification announcement: “WSBR – all Smokey, all the time!”  Today, my iTunes is stocked with the Miracles albums I wore the vinyl rings off of in my youth.  So I really wanted to love Motown the Musical, which I saw at Overture Hall last Tuesday night, March 1.  And I guess I pretty much did. 
The thinnish plot is taken from Motown founder / producer / songwriter Berry Gordy’s autobiography and hinges on his complicated romance with Diana Ross, but the historical backstory is what really carries the tunes.  If you lived the Motown years – the late ‘50s through the early ‘80s – all it takes is a projected image or two from the assassinations of JFK and MLK, Jr., or a shot of napalm, or Neil Armsrong in his moon landing suit, and you know what’s going on (and yes, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is part of this story).   
Motown’s clever, simple sets evoke everything they need to evoke.  Some of the recreated acts – in particular, the Commodores and the temptin’ Temptations, in their shiny sharkskin suits and patent leather shoes – are the spitting image of the soul revues I used to see at the Regal Theater on the south side of Chicago, where I grew up.   The choreography, by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, did a pretty good job of capturing the essence of those old soul shows.  
My personal Tony award goes to Rashad Naylor, a dead-on ringer for Jackie Wilson doing his 1957 jive hit “Reet Petite.”  Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr., as David Ruffin (the Temptations’ lead singer), and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye, came close.  So did 14-year old Leon Outlaw, Jr. as the young Michael Jackson, though my companion suspected there might have been some lip synching going on there.  Chester Gregory, as Berry Gordy, has a perfect set of Motown pipes – if he’d been part of Detroit’s ‘60s pantheon he’d have busted some charts.  Allison Semmes doesn’t quite sound like Diana Ross, but like Gregory, she sure can sing. Jesse Nager, who played my beloved Smokey, did an admirable job, but he neither looked nor sounded like the real thing, not that anyone ever could!  
None of that goes by way of complaint.  My only real gripe, if I have one, is that if I’d written the show I’d have come up with a slightly different song list.  Most of the picks were Motown’s biggest hits, though among my personal favorites are some more obscure tunes, like the Miracles’ silky lament “Won’t You Take Me Back,” off their 1963 album The Fabulous Miracles. Overall there were enough Miracles anthems, I guess, for anybody but me – but where were Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is,” and his sublime “Let’s Get It On”?  Not even “Superstition,” from Stevie Wonder’s wonderful 1972 album Talking Book?  
And then there's this: Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles the year Talking Book came out; he sold the company in 1988.  And really, except for the first couple of California years, Motown – both in the show and in real life – was a bust. Naylor, as Rick James singing his 1981 single “Super Freak,” provided comic relief, but I could have done without it.  Ditto the emphasis on Diana Ross once she split from the Supremes in 1970, which overwhelmed the second half of the show – though I know that’s part of the plot.