|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.