By Bob Evans
The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gay, The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, The Four Tops, Diana Ross, Mary Wells, Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five–all skyrocketed to fame on the high flying determination of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., and all come to life in their heyday with “Motown–The Musical” that opened Aug. 22 for a one week run at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre.
Originating in Detroit, the soul sound of Motown captured the heart and dancing feet of young American audiences and fought back against the British invasion of the Mod Generation in the 1960s. Berry Gory founded Motown in a house renamed Hitsville U.S. A., and from there signed local singers, groups, musician, and songwriters: developed their talents; produced their records; and then faced the daunting task of getting Black artists’ music played on predominately White Top 40 radio stations–even in South.
Young America seized the chance to listen, buy, follow, and dance-heavy beat of the soul music at a time before the Civil Rights Movement affected racial attitudes and pervious stereotypes. A few Black performers broke through the Big Band music of the 1940’s mainly due to their own orchestras, and even fewer remained performing in the early 1950s, with the exceptions being Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald along with a few others. Gordy’s dream meant making music that surpassed the Rhythm and Blues charts and served all America–not a specific Black audience.
Berry Gordy wanted to create music for all America, not just Black America. What is not mentioned is that the music focused on teenage American who bought records and listened to Top 40 AM radio stations. But that’s not important. The story of Gordy’s dream and Motown’s success shines in the Broadway version of his love story, “Motown-The Musical,” running this week at Kansas City’s famous outdoor venue, Starlight Theatre.
“Motown-The Musical” grabs the audience in a choke hold from the opening bars of the music as the curtain opens on a dress rehearsal for a TV Special celebrating 25 years of Motown. The artists whose careers exploded under Gordy’s tutelage unite for the once in a lifetime show which commemorates the Motown musical legacy. Lights up and The Temptations and Four Tops belt out their songs in a slugfest of top hits with their syncopated dance moves and all the flash and panache of the Motown heyday. The style, the glitz, the glamour, the sex appeal, the rhythm and blues style of Detroit’s “sound” fills Starlight’s large performance venue to the delight of the audience.
Time-travel to the 1960 and remember a simpler time in America but also a time when Black artists struggles to have voices heard. It’s the time before President Kennedy’s assassination, before the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, a time before Dr. King’s assassination, a time when race issues were unspoken (but still well-known in the Black community).
Be amazed with the vocal performances in the show. All the cast possesses the vocal strengths to deliver on every song. Close your eyes and you will think Diana Ross, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, and Marvin Gaye are singing live to you. The cast is that good. And, the lead, portraying Berry Gordy, Jr., Chester Gregory, absolutely controls the show with his fabulous voice and acting skills.
Noteable in the production are Allison Semmes as Diana Ross, David Kaverman as Smokey Robinson, Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye. The young man playing multiple parts as Michael Jackson rotates between CJ Wright and Raymond Davis, Jr. Whichever one opened Starlight’s run was phenomenal.
The show is actually a two stories. One is the rise of Gordy and Motown. The second is the love story of Gordy and Diana Ross. The pieces fit well in the story, though glamorized and major part of their relationship are not fully explained, like her three children (2 by Gordy).
Technically, no glitches in this highly-polished national tour. Sound, lighting, projection, costumes, makeup, hair–every aspect of the production added another layer to the enjoyment and the total package. The show exuded energy and class from the opening beat through the curtain call.
“Motown-the Musical” definitely rates as the most fun musical this season because of the well-known music and real life performers. “Something Rotten” comes in a close second, but was still a fantastic show with all new songs. The energy of “Motown” just outshines all seasonal preformances. More shows like this would generate stronger attendance, for sure.
Tags: Starlight Theatre, “Motown-The Musical”, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment