I’m not going to lie, going into Broadway San Jose’s Motown the Musical I thought there was a good chance I might be about 20 years too young to fully appreciate it. You’d think I’d be trusting enough by now, but clearly I still need reminding. You’ll be happy to know, I was wrong and once again theater and music demonstrated their innate power to bridge a variety of gaps and transcend generations (among other things.)
The audience was primed Tuesday night and their reactions became part of the show for me, making it even more enjoyable. All it took was a chord or a couple of notes before the audience let out a collective knowing and nostalgic gasp… THIS was their favorite… oh THIS one… no THIS IS THE ONE. The mere silhouette of sports-coated men or women striking powerful poses, set this crowd into an “I love this song” frenzy. An introduction in the first few minutes to the evening’s Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson had the audience whooping and whistling like teens (which they/I were/am certainly not). I didn’t have the heart to tell them, it wasn’t REALLY Marvin and Smokey… but I soon found out that that fact made very little difference.
I can’t verify, but along with audible moans and sighs that peppered the audience during a soulful stripped down “Mercy, Mercy Me” I may have also heard the actual quivering of loins. I don’t think I was misinterpreting the signs that some of the ladies sitting nearby found themselves in a baby making mood after that particular performance; which is super weird because news flash – its a song about pollution. But dammit, it was the sexiest song about pollution apparently ever sung. The original songs surely hold a power over people, but the cast tasked with singing them for this show, seemed to live up to all expectations.
To say our Mary Wells for the evening was a crowd-pleaser would be a gross understatement. She possesses the kind of vocal power that I bet notes dream being born from. Our Diana Ross gave a perky and convincing performance as well, both vocally and from an acting standpoint. Smokey brought it. Berry Gordy sold it. I enjoyed the entire ensembles colorful portrayals of real personalities.
The female harmonies in particular are so distinct in Motown, and we really don’t have anywhere near the equivalent amongst our modern Top 40. One of the reasons the music has surely survived and is still so revered, certainly is that unique, powerful quality. The background singers WERE the music. They were heard over a solo. They never felt like they were in the “background” to me and being reminded of that was an unexpected enjoyable take-away.
And, then there was young Michael Jackson. That’s a big name to live up to and our young actor nailed it. Dynamic, charming, charisma to spare and a voice paired with moves to match. I love seeing naturally talented kids bask in the glow of an audience and this kid was on fire, in his zone and loving the response. So many great moments, but the brief Jackson 5 scene was easily my favorite.
Along with supreme voices and great storytelling through acting, this show is one that makes it hard to not move in your seat. Indeed, this is a show that brings the “noise” and the funk and there was a lot of seat jive going on. The birth of boy band swagger, or MAN BAND Swag would appear to be Motown. Move over In Sync. Not so fast 98 Degrees. As if Backstreet Boys. If you weren’t already schooled in showmanship, our cast was ready to show you how it’s done. Oh, and they GOT IT DONE, AND THEN SOME. Great choreography and execution, no complaints at all there.
While a few original songs written specifically for the show serve only to tie the mostly overly-convenient and somewhat contrived plot device of a retrospective, the show moved so quickly, it didn’t bother me too much. Sure the structure is formulaic and a bit weak, but it really doesn’t detract noticeably from the star-studded song book which packs in a LOT of music and humor into 2 ½ hours.
While totally necessary to tell the story, and certainly key in demonstrating the power of music and the determination and bravery of Berry Gordy, the depiction of the racial tension is painful for me to watch; perhaps even more so in light of recent, very public examples, that we still have a long way to go to correct perceptions, practices, and injustices. While head-shakingly sad, this aspect of the show was certainly another example of why the music and the story remain so relevant.
Though the show was clearly about the music (and the fabulous band!) the spectacle was fully present and supported technically. Colorful lights, clever projections and a fluid set unobtrusively kept us aware of chronology and framed the talented cast as they moved from location to location and through time. A golden hairbrush goes to those in charge of the wig design and care! Every coif and up do was kept 100% on point even during what seemed like some impossibly quick changes.
I was surprised overall how fast this show moved and how fun it was. 4 ½ out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a quick paced, jam-packed, lightly historical look back on some damn entertaining music from musical icons. Motown the Musical plays through Sunday, June 26th, at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.