Like many of the so-called “jukebox” productions, “Motown the Musical” is less a proper play than an excuse to wallow in the glories of ’60s and ’70s pop and soul.
The story of Detroit impresario Berry Gordy and the artists who made up his Motown Records empire feature no fewer than 60 renditions of Gordy-produced hits ranging from “Dancing in the Streets” to “Ball of Confusion” and “War.”
There are so many songs referenced in this 2 1/2 -hour production that opened Tuesday on the Starlight stage that only a few are performed in their entirety. Most don’t get to the second chorus before making way for yet another timeless (though abbreviated) hit.
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So be it. Baby boomers will find in “Motown” a nostalgic treasure trove; the young and callow may have their senses opened by some of the greatest songwriting, singing and creative arrangements in all of pop music.
In short, it’s a huge audience pleaser.
That said, “Motown” is an odd creation. It’s autobiographical (Gordy wrote the book), but so shorn of rough edges that it feels like hagiography.
The Berry Gordy we see on stage may be visionary but he’s curiously bland. Thankfully Chester Gregory, who essays the role, is given several solo numbers to display his impressive vocal range; it is these — songs like “To Be Loved” and “Can I Close the Door” — that outshine Gordy’s leaden dialogue to successfully establish the character.
The evening begins in 1983 with a big show celebrating the 25th anniversary of the creation of Motown. But Gordy, by this time abandoned by many of the artists he made stars, is nursing a grudge and claims he won’t attend.
What follows is an extended flashback that ranges from Gordy’s childhood through three decades of music-making.
Along the way Gordy’s book offers some social commentary on the American scene (racism and civil rights, the Vietnam conflict, the initial reluctance of white radio stations to play “race” music, Black Power). But mostly it’s a nonstop revue of familiar tunes delivered by performers who in many instances give eerily effective imitations of the original Motown stars.
There’s Smokey Robinson (David Kaverman), Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), and young Michael Jackson (Raymond Davis Jr.).
And especially there’s Diana Ross, star of the Supremes and for a period, Gordy’s love interest. She’s portrayed by Allison Semmes, who not only sounds like the original diva but has perfected Ross’ gushy between-songs stage patter.
At one point she ventures into the Starlight audience to find ticket holders willing to sing a duet with her.
All this plays out against an impressionistic set that makes spectacular use of projections (films, photos, animated graphics). The excellent orchestra lists only five musicians under the direction of Jennifer Oikawa, but they play like an ensemble 10 times that size. And the choreography perfectly captures the presentational style of the classic soul bands.
“Motown the Musical” continues through Aug. 27 at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.