Director Jewels: MOTOWN THE MUSICAL - Kansas City Broadway Series in Town through 12/14/14

Saturday, December 13, 2014

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL - Kansas City Broadway Series in Town through 12/14/14

Disclosure: I received press passes to attend this production from Theatre League Kansas City. I received no other compensation and all views expressed are my own.

A few years ago, I could have told you every show that was playing on Broadway, when it opened and who was starring in it without blinking. Three trips to the Big Apple in a three-year time period helped my knowledge on the subject expand considerably - but then we had two kids in two years and my brain stopped functioning quite the same way. Two kids under the age of four and a smaller budget means that a trip to NYC has not been an option for a little while. I miss the city, but I feel like I get to taste a little piece of its magic when the latest and greatest productions stop by Kansas City while traveling the nation!

I remember seeing the announcement that MOTOWN THE MUSICAL would be playing at the Music Hall this December, but with my Broadway knowledge out of date, I didn't realize what a great show was headed our way!

MOTOWN opened on Broadway in April 2013, so it is a relatively new production. This show features more than 40 actors who perform almost 60 of the most beloved hits in the Motown music catalogue. A lot of the songs are presented in medley format, giving the ability to showcase many popular songs that will have you singing and dancing along right in your seat.

But...what IS Motown, exactly? I'm ashamed to admit that my music knowledge was sadly lacking in this area before I had the privilege to attend this show earlier in the week.

Written by label founder Berry Gordy, MOTOWN THE MUSICAL charts the meteoric career of Gordy from his days as a wannabe boxer in Detroit to his position as the head of the Motown record label. As Gordy discovers new talents like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and The Supremes, he also finds himself entangled in a drama-fueled romance with Diana Ross. The show stretches across decades as it tells the true story of Gordy—and Motown’s—rise to fame.

Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
First National Tour (C) Joan Marcus, 2014

From the very start of the production (which I almost missed thanks to unbelievable downtown construction and traffic...I may or may not have run up the theatre stairs with my shoes in my hands in a crazed state to get through the door before the Act I hold. Those of you who know me in person know this is not by any means a stretch of the imagination!), I was totally blown away and mesmerized by the story. I was familiar with many of the songs included in the production and Andrew (my husband) knew even more than I did, but between the two of us we maybe recognized only 50-70% of the music. The show was a fascinating historical journey for both of us. 

Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour (c) Joan Marcus, 2014

I researched the show a little before attending and was worried by multiple reviewers claiming the story was thin and the characters weak. In my opinion, this could not be further from the truth. Sure - when you decide to write a two-hour musical based on historical events that took place over the course of several decades, using music that already exists, you may have to reach occasionally to fit the pieces together seamlessly. I totally get that, but I think in this case - in the context of a story told by a flashback timeline - it absolutely works. There may not always be a lot happening in the "moment" of the story, but the historical context and multimedia inclusion of advertisements, photos, and news clips from the time period were altogether fascinating.

The story follows Berry Gordy (normally played on the tour by Clifton Oliver; we saw an understudy perform on Wednesday evening) and the journey he takes to become the founder of Motown, the record label that launched the careers of many of America's favorites from the 1960's, '70s, and '80s. Gordy's character is backed up by Diana Ross (played by Alison Semmes), Marvin Gaye (played by Jarren Muse), Smokey Robinson (played by Jesse Nager), and a large ensemble cast who seamlessly fill in the additional family members, artists, and others who shaped Motown.

The audience on Wednesday evening in Kansas City was thrilled by this performance and did not reserve their appreciation - whether by clapping, cheering, or even singing along. My husband and I were in a minority of young audience members - which makes me a little bit sad! This show is certainly able to entertain audiences of any age. That said - witnessing the reactions of an older generation was fascinating! I am familiar with a lot of the music included in the show, but I did not get to experience hearing these classics as they hit the stands. I don't have each intonation of the original recordings memorized. I didn't view the live television specials featuring these talented artists. Those who did, however, were the first to cheer at a nod to the original and laugh when someone tossed their hair a certain way.

The entire cast puts on a brilliant performance - stunning vocals, upbeat dancing, and character impersonations that had much of the audience laughing outright. I think the crowd favorite role would have to go to Young Berry Gordy/Young Stevie Wonder/Young Michael Jackson (played alternately by Leon Outlaw, Jr. and Reed L. Shannon). Every time this kid stepped on stage, he had the audience in the palm of his hand!

Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) & Trisha Jeffrey
(Mary Wilson) MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour (c) Joan Marcus, 2014

Motown music has such a strong drive, which much of our contemporary music lacks. A lot of people may know some of these classic songs more than they know the modern hits of the last decade! I even sang a Diana Ross anthem - Ain't No Mountain High Enough - in show choir as a teenager (albeit without realizing its significance in music history).

Just a few other songs that I personally recognized include ABC, Dancing in the Street, Do You Love Me?, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, I'll Be There, My Girl, and Stop! In the Name of Love.

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye & Cast MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
First National Tour (c) Joan Marcus, 2014

Beyond the entertaining music and interesting historical characters, even the scenic design (by David Korins) held appeal for the audience. I loved the moving lines and columns throughout the piece - they added beautiful symmetry, made some scenes appear "smaller" and more intimate, and allowed viewers to use their imaginations to be transported from Detroit to L.A. to Paris without question!

There was a mild amount of language in the script, so I'm not sure I could recommend it for children. Mature teens and adults of all ages, however, are sure to enjoy this dramatic, musically inspiring piece. It's in Kansas City the rest of the weekend - don't miss your chance to see it!

Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy & Cast MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
First National Tour (C) Joan Marcus, 2014

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL plays now through December 14 at the Music Hall - you have four more chances to see it, so make time for it if you can! Tickets are available online.

Thanks to the Kansas City Broadway Series for providing my tickets to the show. I received no other compensation and all views expressed are my own. For more information, you can read my Disclosure Policy.

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