Berry Gordy’s Baby
Motown The Musical, now on stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, is a wonderful nostalgia trip. For those of us in Southwestern Ontario who grew up listening to Windsor’s huge radio station, the Big 8 CKLW, the songs whisk us back to our teen years.
And that brings me to one of my concerns with this show. While other radio stations are mentioned, CKLW is ignored. But this show was written by Berry Gordy himself, the founder of Motown, for American theatre – maybe it wouldn’t do to give credit to a Canadian radio station where the call letters start with a C. So all the stations mentioned in the musical start with a W. But from listening to the Big 8, we know that it stretched far and wide into the U.S. and it was the station that made Motown famous.
My other concern is the fact that this is written by Gordy. We see the world as he sees it. So one wonders how accurate his account is. In his defence, it’s not just good times; he takes us through some tough times, too. But some of the dialogue sounds a little stilted and could use a rewrite. The voices also lack the sixties slang and the Detroit sound – it has, no doubt, been sanitized for today’s audiences. The plot, which covers the life of Berry Gordy as he starts with Hitsville, U.S.A. and builds Motown, is fascinating, but unfortunately the weak script doesn’t give us that excitement.
But, forget I said all that – if it’s the Motown music you want to hear, then this is the show. We know the amazing catalogue of music Motown created, and this cast has the vocal talent to present it! Every singer recreates the sound perfectly, with a collection of the most incredible voices. There is not a weak singer among them and a total of 60 (yes, count ‘em, 60!) songs are covered.
Josh Tower as Berry Gordy has an amazing voice, as does Allison Semmes as Diana Ross. Her “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” brings the house down at the end of the evening. Jess Nager as Smokey Robinson has a smooth rich voice. The crowd favourite is Jarran Muse as the troubled Marvin Gaye. Also notable is the performance of young Nathaniel Cullors. He plays young Berry Gordy, little Stevie Wonder and young Michael Jackson. Not only does he sing well, but he has the dance moves to match. (Note that on alternating performances this role is played by Leon Outlaw Jr.)
Favourite numbers include Can’t Get Next to You, Dancing in the Street, Please Mr. Postman, Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours, I Heard it through the Grapevine, I Want You Back, What’s Going On, Stop in the Name of Love, Mercy Mercy Me, My Girl, Shop Around, War and many, many more.
The amazing singing and dance moves of this energetic cast more than make up for any missing information. If you are a Motown fan you don’t want to miss this songbook in the hands of this talented cast.
Motown The Musical continues with eight shows a week at the Princess of Wales Theatre until November 1. Call Ticket King 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets.
Photo: The Supremes in Motown The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Motown The Musical
Based on the book by Berry Gordy
Music from the Legendary Motown Catalog
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams
Musical Direction by Darryl Archibald
Performed by Josh Tower, Allison Semmes, Jesse Nager, Jarran Muse et al.
Produced by Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris and Berry Gordy with David Mirvish
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
September 22 to November 1, 2015
Reviewed by Mary Alderson