So, Motown: The Musical. OK, let's do this.
Yes, it's bad. But we knew that was going to be true. But the genuinely surprising thing about Motown is that it's not entirely disastrous. Sure, the show is the ultimate Broadway vanity project: it's essentially a love letter from Motown founder Berry Gordy to the person he seems to love the most: himself. And the dialog heaps one tepid cliché on top of another.
Here's the thing, though: the show is actually kind of fun, at least at times. A show this lazily conceived and poorly wrought simply shouldn't be as intermittently infectious, as periodically joyous as Motown actually is.
Part of the resistible charm of Motown lies in its rich catalog of songs. I was born at the very end of the Baby Boom, and while most of these songs were a little before my time, there's something in me that gets all warm and runny when I hear the opening chords of "I Hear a Symphony" or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Yes, folks, even I am susceptible to nostalgia.
Motown is staged at breakneck speed by director Charles Randolph-Wright, and in truth there are stretches of time when the frenetic pace almost makes you forget the lame dialogue and predictable plot developments. The brisk, dynamic choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams adds a great deal to the sensory appeal of the show. The relentless momentum sputters out at the start of act two, but picks up considerably with the entrance of the Jackson Five at about the 9:30 mark.
Another huge asset here is the game and professional cast, led by Brandon Victor Dixon as Mr. Gordy himself, and the marvelous Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross. Also compelling are Bryan Terrell Clark as Marvin Gaye, and Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson. (Oh, and a special shout-out to a former student of mine, Nicholas Christopher, making his Broadway bow in the ensemble. You da man, Nick.)
As for the book, Motown is mostly fine when nobody is speaking. The narrative is never muddled, but it's also never deep. The dialogue is of the "Mr. Berry Gordy, you built a legacy of love" variety. After a prologue in which Gordy petulantly bemoans how most of the singers and groups that he made famous wound up leaving him for greener pastures, Smokey Robinson confronts him to remind him of the "dream" he started "twenty five years ago." Gordy responds, "My dream started long before that," and we travel back to a precocious young Gordy just getting his start. I almost expected the stage lighting to mimic that age-old TV screen ripple to signify the passage of time, or perhaps Wayne Campbell and Garth to enter from the wings, wave their hands, and spout "Doodle-oot, doodle-oot."
In Gordy's favor, there are some genuine attempts at making some of the Motown numbers at least somewhat contextual, for instance when Gordy and Diana Ross sing to each other "You're All I Need to Get By." In truth, the show is actually fine when it's just trying to be a catalog of hits. (I was, however, thankful that Motown didn't end with that most dreaded of modern jukebox-musical contrivances: the megamix.) It's when the book veers into facile social history that it becomes laughable. Need to represent the impact of the Vietnam War? How about a dance number to the Edwin Starr single "War"? The environmental activism of the '70s? Bring on Marvin Gaye and "Mercy Mercy Me."
Ultimately, though, the insurmountable obstacle here is Berry Gordy himself, who receives sole credit for the book, despite the presence of "script consultants" David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan. I mean, is it even possible to write your own pre-mortem hagiography? The show doesn't really have much of a point of view, except "Here's what I built. Aren't I great?" Gordy unapologetically portrays himself as the misunderstood saint, the nice guy who only fights back when pushed. If Berry Gordy is guilty of anything, he seems to be saying, it's that he cared too much.
The unflagging devotion Berry feels for himself would be touching if it weren't so solipsistic. I'm no expert here, but I seem to recall that Gordy has a reputation for being rather ruthless and conniving as a businessman. As comedian John Mulaney says in his act, "You mean you're gonna give me a whole $100 for all of my songs? Where do I sign, Mr. Berry Gordy?" The only real attempt we get at balance is a scene in which Gordy first has sex with Diana Ross and he's unable to...rise to the challenge, shall we say?
It happens to the best of us, Berry.