“Motown The Musical,” directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and presented by Broadway in Indianapolis, opened in Indianapolis at the Old National Centre, Tuesday. After the performance, I spoke with Chester Gregory who plays Motown founder, Berry Gordy. “This was the best audience we have had so far on the tour.” said Gregory. I met the actor/singer/dancer when he appeared at The Cabaret in 2014. Most recently, I interviewed the performer by phone last week, prior to the show’s arrival in Indy for its run that continues through April 2.
I was not surprised when I heard Gregory’s assessment. Based on my own observation, the packed Murat Theatre audience was among the most demonstrative I have seen during my many years of reviewing theatre. The diverse audience, consisting primarily of Baby boomers, couldn’t have been more enthusiastic, with many having a call and response reaction upon hearing the show’s 60 songs, derived from the Motown catalogue that helped transform a racially polarized America. It was obvious that many in the audience were reliving their youth as they listened to music that defined their generation.
The gifted Gregory, himself, can partly take credit for the show’s dynamic quality. Doing a yeoman’s job of singing (his vocal power and range are astounding) and acting, he appeared frequently throughout the show as Gordy. A driven visionary whose journey from auto worker to music mogul is traced, Gordy is portrayed as a loving, yet often controlling father figure to a family of artists he developed and mentor.
Allison Semmes was spectacular as Diana Ross. Possessing a vocal tone reminiscent of Ross’, Semmes brilliantly captured the diva’s essence. A highlight of the show occurred when Sammes as Ross at a concert, sang “Reach Out and Touch,” and encouraged audience members to hold the hands of those on either side of them aloft, sway and sing along in a demonstration of unity.
David Kaverman as Smokey Robinson, Gordy’s friend and confidant, also turned in a fine performance singing “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” as the easy going, affable singer/songwriter who later became a Motown producer
Jarren Muse played Marvin Gaye, channeling the singer/songwriter superbly when he sang “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “What’s Going On?”
12-year old Indianapolis native Raymond Davis Jr. brought down the house as young Michael Jackson singing a medley, that included “ABC ” I Want You Back,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” with The Jackson Five. Davis’ voice and movement was uncannily similar to that of MJ.’s It was truly a stunning performance.
More than just a story about an American record company and its founder, “Motown The Musical” also documented the often precarious times, i.e., civil rights struggles, assassinations, and the Viet Nam War, that served as a backdrop for the show’s narrative.
The show’s jukebox score was vivaciously rendered by the Motown Musical Orchestra, made up of the company’s musicians along with those hired locally, and led by conductor Ethan Popp.
Another major production feature are archival projections of pop graphics and historic stills and video footage, all of which illustrate the show’s storyline.
Also contributing to the show’s dynamism is the choreography of Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, dazzlingly executed by the large ensemble consisting of performers who are not only accomplished dancers but first rate actors and singers as well.
A captivating survey of some of America’s most popular music, “Motown The Musical” also serves as a political commentary on the events that influenced music produced during one of the most tumultuous yet transformative periods of our country’s history. First and foremost, however, like the unifying music it pays tribute to, the show is tremendously entertaining.
“Motown The Musical” plays at the Old National Centre through April 4. The performance schedule is Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday matinee at 1 p.m., and Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m.. Tickets are available in person at Clowes Memorial Hall, the Old National Centre Ticket Office, online at BroadwayinIndianapolis.com, or by phone at 1-800-982-2787. The Groups of 10 or more can book now by calling 317-632-7469 x103.