Chicago Theatre Review
Dancing in the Street
Motown the Musical – Broadway in Chicago
One of the hottest tickets last season on Broadway (and it continues even today) is destined to become another best-selling show in Chicago, as well. The kickoff for a National Tour, this jukebox musical is a biography of Barry Gordy, the heart and soul behind Detroit’s most famous export since the automobile. Including 60 of Motown’s best-loved hit singles, the producers must’ve had a difficult time deciding which songs NOT to include in this retrospective of the “Music of a Generation.” With so many pop, R&B and ballad winners from which to choose, honing this playlist down to just three hours is a feat in itself. However, for all the musical magic and talent found in this trip down memory lane, the show’s book is a problem.
A self-made man like Mr. Gordy certainly deserves a tribute to all the passion he poured into Motown. The talented young singers he discovered and to whom he gave breaks can fill the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, not to mention all the hits he produced and the lives his music touched. The musical opens and closes with a televised celebration of Motown’s 25 years of excellence. In between we meet a young Diana Ross and her Supremes working their way up from eager young high school kids to the powerhouse legends (and later, soloists) they would become. We see the rise of Gordy’s longtime friend and extraordinary performer, Smokey Robinson (both before and after the Miracles), and crooner-wannabe Marvin Gaye, as they become multi-million dollar recording superstars. Other soloists, like Mary Wells, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, as well as top vocal groups, such as the Jackson 5, Martha and the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Commodores, and many others are represented here by a super talented cast of 33 triple threats. They sing and dance their hearts out, which is the real draw of this show.
Unfortunately, the script that connects all these wonderful musical numbers (written by Mr. Gordy, himself) is just too slight. Jumping from 1938 to 1983 and then back through the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, it glosses over too many of America’s most important historical moments. The conundrum is that audiences really just want to see and hear their favorite music being sung and presented the way they remember it. Barry Gordy’s climb to success, while admirable, just isn’t as interesting a story as the music he produced. Other bio-musicals, such “Jersey Boys” and “Beautiful,” do a far better job with that element; the segues between songs in this script are too bland and only serve to put a damper on the excitement generated by the musical numbers.
Chicago actress/singer Allison Semmes as Diana Ross is one of the best elements of this production. Her journey from teenager to superstar is so finely portrayed and so authentically sung and styled that audiences forget they’re seeing an actress “playing” Ms. Ross. Clifton Oliver does the most he can playing Barry Gordy. He’s driven, likable and the kind, devoted papa behind the success of his many proteges. It’s just that this script doesn’t provide Mr. Oliver with much to do really except introduce each musical act. Nicholas Christopher and Jarran Muse are terrific as Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, while Reed L. Shannon practically steals the show as Michael Jackson.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright has kept his production tight and moving right along, and the choreographic team of Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams have found all the right moves from the 60’s and 70’s to make each musical number look authentic and exciting. Tony nominated costumer Esosa has designed and constructed racks and racks of eye-catching, sparkly and spangly outfits befitting these performers. And Darryl Archibald’s magnificent pit orchestra captures the rhythms and sounds that made Motown the crossover success it became.
This production boasts a huge cast bursting with talent. It offers popular songs from “ABC” to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and everything in between. Timeless hits like “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” “My Girl,” “My Guy,” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” are just the tip of the iceberg. Hearing shortened versions of these songs, performed live as they might’ve been during the glory days of Motown, stir musical memories of a more innocent time. Wading through this show’s tiresome book scenes ultimately reward audiences with what they came to hear: Motown’s Greatest Hits. Patrons will leave the theatre feeling great and simply “Dancing in the Street.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 8-August 9 by Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available by visiting any BIC box office or Ticketmaster, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.