Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye & cast in the national tour of Motown: The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.


Motown: The Musical

Music & lyrics by Various
Book by Berry Gordy Jr.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright

Review by Kathi E. B. Ellis

Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved

This week, a high-energy combination of the Motor City and the Great White Way burst into Louisville with the current Broadway Series production, Motown: the Musical, at the Kentucky Center.

Following the equally high-caliber Cabaret last month, these two productions constitute the high point of this year’s touring productions for Louisville audiences.

The 2013 Motown is definitely a “jukebox” musical – an unabashed excuse to relish the sound of Motown from 1959 to 1983 – and what a songbook it is. The show’s trajectory follows the career of Berry Gordy as he finds his calling to write for, produce, and promote black artists and, in so doing, change the course of American popular music. Based on his biography, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown, the musical celebrates Gordy and the Who’s Who of mid-20th century artists. Director Charles Randolph-Wright and his exceptionally impressive creative team and this large cast of singer-dancer-actors brilliantly bring to life the Motown sound and look with exuberance.

The book is undeniably slender, and the excellent performers are frequently burdened with clunky dialogue. The storytelling is at its most successful when iconic songs are juxtaposed with historical images and news stories in powerful projections, designed by Daniel Brodie, or used to enhance key moments in relationships. The 34-strong ensemble nimbly shifts from decade to decade, many embodying as many as six characters each.

The center of the story is, of course, Gordy himself, played by Chester Gregory, who brings to life the charisma and energy of the founder of Hitsville U.S.A. Key artists whom Gordy nurtured are also highlighted: Diana Ross is played by Allison Semmes, Smokey Robinson by Jesse Nager, and Marvin Gaye by Jarran Muse, all of whom successfully, to the delight of the audience, re-create the physical and vocal idiosyncrasies of the originals. The young Michael Jackson was played by Leon Outlaw, Jr. on opening night (also played by J.J. Batteast), whose dance moves and recognizable high notes brought roars of approval from the audience.

The hard-working ensemble step through the dance moves of Motown with precision and brio, performing the routines re-created by choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. Over the course of two and a half hours, 56 Motown songs are integrated into the show, many generating appreciative ripples at the familiar introductions. Early in the story, Gordy works hard to persuade Ross to sing a “standard” as a strategy to get Motown artists into mainstream television and radio. It’s an uphill battle – both with Ross and with the white managers. The packed house on opening night demonstrated just how “standard” Gordy’s songbook has become to several generations of music lovers.

Costume design by Esosa, together with the hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe, are absolutely key to creating the almost-40-year time span. At times, I sensed that the backstage “show” of costume and wig changes was as complex as the one onstage, as members of the ensemble rotated through musical numbers from different eras. Scenic designer David Korins has created an effective series of moving columns and beams that smoothly reorganize themselves into various locations; the frequent backdrop is an elegant outline of the Detroit street where Hitsville U.S.A. began. Natasha Katz’s lighting design is as kinetic as the choreography itself and the tumultuous decades of this journey.

If you love this music, Motown: The Musical is at the Kentucky Center through Sunday, April 17.

Motown: The Musical

April 12 – 17, 2016

PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204


kathi e.b. ellis headshot colorKathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artistry, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’s textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.