By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
Allison Semmes and Chester Gregory as Diana Ross and Berry Gordy.
"Motown the Musical” is all about the spectacle. The music is good, but the dazzling costumes, sweep of strong voices and an amazing digital backdrop of ever-changing panels filled with bright colors trumps the songs and the story of Berrry Gordy's tumultuous success in the music business during America's civil rights conflicts and cultural revolution.
Everybody probably already knows this, but it is worth noting that “Motown the Musical” is not a showcase of Motown's greatest hits. We hear some full songs but mostly snippets, whether it is the Supremes early favorites, a little bit of Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson or some knock-out vocal gymnastics from the Jackson 5.
However, there is lots of music -- 61 song titles listed in alphabetical order on the program -- and an excellent pit orchestra playing the score. There just aren't many moments of heart-stopping nostalgia hearing such favorites as “I Hear A Symphony,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “My Guy,” “Stop in the Name of Love” or “Signed, Sealed Delivered I'm Yours.”
Of the four lead players – Berry Gordy (Chester Gregory), Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), Smokey Robinson (David Kaverman) – Semmes interpretation of Ross stood above the others.
But the most magical music was sung by diminutive CJ Wright as the exuberant young Michael Jackson backed by his four older brothers.
“Motown the Musical” runs nearly three hours, with Act One beginning in 1938 when the youngster Berry Gordy heard the radio broadcast of Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling (a white man) that filled Gordy with black pride.
As postwar pop music became a market place battle for record sales in dime stores and such, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and plunged into the record business. In the early 1950s he was making “race records” and spent most of the first act trying to get his records played on white radio stations.
In the course of this rags-to-riches story we learn a few things. All of Motown's sales staff were white guys. After the Supremes became popular, Gordy insisted they sing “a standard,” that is, a white song, because he knew they wouldn't be booked into the Copacabana and Las Vegas if they could only sing black music.
But as the confrontations over civil rights turned into race riots, Gordy refused to get involved. He insisted his singers get respect, but he would not join any black activist groups.
Then the second act is about the success of Motown and Ross, the Motown move from Detroit to Los Angeles, the success of the Supremes in Las Vegas and on the Ed Sullivan show. And of course, the break-up of the Supremes because Ross wanted to be bigger all by herself.
It is a story we all know to some degree. And the telling of it seems to take forever. But in the meantime, there is still lots of spectacle to enjoy as the gowns become more elegant, the back-up singers more snappy...and that amazing stage set more dazzling.
“Motown the Musical” runs through Sunday in Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd., presented by Broadway in Tucson. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 22-23; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26.
Tickets are $19-$100, with discounts available. For details and reservations, broadwayintucson.com, or 1-800-745-3000. Or in person at the Centennial Hall box office, with free parking