LOS ANGELES-Start fast and end with a bang. If there is a musical or live performance you should go see, “Motown: The Musical,” would be that production. For those of us looking to reminisce about the good old days, “Motown: The Musical” hands delivers the golden era of the unmistakable soulful sounds that Motown founder Berry Gordy richly created in the 1960s and 1970s, and even into the early 80s. And if nothing else, “Motown: The Musical” is a whole lot of fun.
Catching the opening night of the touring hit Broadway show at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles sort of reminded you when chewing bubble gum was a pleasure and life was a lot simpler. It sure brought out a lot of former stars and current industry insiders to the production .
The red carpet was laid out for Gordy, songwriting and singing sensation Smokey Robinson, actress Loretta Devine, singer Toni Braxton, Sidney Potier, Leon Isaac Kennedy and others to make their way through the myriad of onlookers and photo honkers to go into the sold-out performance.
This is the power of the music that Motown produced. “Motown: The Musical” is quite a show, and spins out one hit after another to cement the legacy that Gordy had the audacity to mastermind with the assistance of Robinson, his lifelong friend and his chief musical writing partner. When you think of Motown, you think of the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes (before they became Diana Ross and the Supremes), Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5.
For those coming to see “Motown: The Musical,” you get a chance to see a live replica of these acts that allows you to think about the good times when music was simple and the dash of soul became embedded into our daily lives. The music is right and tight as the storyline develops over a timeline that carries over for several decades.
Basically, “Motown: The Musical” (playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through June 7) is the Berry Gordy story, done his way. After a brief introduction to a young and ambitious Gordy trying to get his hustle on and make his way in the music industry, the audience gets cued in somewhat into the personal and professional relationship he establishes with the classy Robinson. Meanwhile, the music and showmanship of Motown take over the stage with a thundering presence and with rapid-fire precision.
The Four Tops and the Temptations takes us back to yesteryear with “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Get Ready,” and “Baby, I Need Your Lovin.” We then get a parade of some of Motown’s biggest hits being transformed on stage, going from Mary Wells (My Guy) to Martha and the Vandellas (Dancing in the Streets) to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (Shop Around) to the irrepressible Marvin Gaye (Mercy,Mercy Me). This is what audiences want to see and hear.
For nearly three hours you’re allowed to go back in time and enjoy reveling in the mighty sounds of Motown. And it’s worth it. “Motown: The Musical” is a chronological clock of the Gordy’s masterpiece that he founded, nurtured and built into an iconic empire. The biggest applause of the night went to both “The Boss” Diana Ross and to the young men re-enacting the Jackson 5.
Talk about Johnny on the spot, Allison Semmes steals the show as Diana Ross as “Motown: The Musical delve intimately into the close-knitted relationship between Gordy and the Supremes lead singer. On stage, Semmes sound, walk, sings and mimics Ross like nobody’s business. Julius Thomas III does an admirable job as Gordy, but it is Semmes, three quarters into the musical who commands the audience’s attention.
As “Motown: The Musical” switch gears from all the great music coming at you with full throttle intensity to incorporate the budding implied romance between Gordy and Ross, Semmes stamps her presence on the persona of Ross she has trained to emulate. She does more than a pretty good job at being a stage clone of Ross. Semmes’ performance is, quite simply, divalicious. For years, the rumor bin has swirled around Gordy and Ross and their relationship. “Motown: The Musical” not only blows the cover off the relationship between these two, it rolls it out to the public with a here-it-is attitude.
While all of this is going on, the music machine that is Motown continues to do big things as Ross engages into a starlit solo career, moving away from her Supremes co-stars, and the Jackson 5 storms onto the scene with bubble-gum hits “ABC” and “I Want You Back” and the tender ballad “Who’s Loving You.” The only disappointment with “Motown: The Musical,” if there are any complaints, would be that there’s not enough stage presence of Stevie Wonder or the extremely popular Gaye for audiences to see.
Other than that, if you fell in love with that genre of hit-making music, you’re going to love “Motown: The Musical.”