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'Motown: The Musical'

OKC Broadway
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Sitting through Motown: The Musical is like attending a lecture titled “Motown: The Intersection of ‘Race Music,’ Social and Popular Culture, and the Music Business, 1959-1983.” Except rather than a gawky, if enthusiastic, academic, it’s delivered with thumping bass and teeming energy. Interesting, but is it worth the time and effort?

Now at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway series, the show tells the story of Berry Gordy and Motown Records. Gordy wrote the show’s book, based on his memoir. Thus, we see his version of events, and he’s as balanced as any autobiographer is likely to be.

Initially backed by an $800 family loan, Gordy built his empire and changed the face of popular music. When he started the company in 1959, music of black artists was “race music,” and white-owned radio stations wouldn’t play it. But with ambition and tenacity, Gordy made soul, rhythm and blues and funk mainstream, while also developing some of pop music’s most famous acts. Eventually, Gordy becomes threatened by his own success when entertainment conglomerates begin poaching his musicians. “The pressure of fame is vicious,” Gordy says.

Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, who staged the show on Broadway, this production suffers no lack of ambition or tenacity. The score consists of some 60 songs ranging from “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” to “Stop in the Name of Love” to “My Guy” to “My Girl” to “I Hear a Symphony” to “War” (“What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!”) Or, at least, snippets of many of the songs. Motown thrived during a time of social upheaval, so its music becomes inextricably linked with the rest of culture. “What’s Going On” seems an appropriate response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the subsequent riots.

A small horn section supplements the heavily synthesized orchestra. It’s not bad for your average national touring musical.

Scenic design by David Korins consists mainly of surfaces for Daniel Brodie’s emblematic projection design. The projections run from artistic to psychedelic. This becomes a problem only when the projections are more interesting than what’s going on in front of them, which happens more than it should. Natasha Katz’s lighting meshes cleanly with the scenic

design, and Emilio Sosa’s costumes are frighteningly authentic. The costumes remind us again how sartorially exuberant the ‘60s and ‘70s were.

The story covers a lot of territory, so we don’t learn much new about the show’s characters, who are mostly real people. Chester Gregory leads the cast as Gordy. He has a strong singing voice and plenty of acting chops for the role. Allison Semmes plays Diana Ross, while David Kaverman is Smokey Robinson, Gordy’s steadfast friend. Malcolm Armwood plays Marvin Gaye, who aspires to be a socially relevant artist in troubled times. At the reviewed performance, 11-year-old CJ Wright bore the thankless task of imitating a young Michael Jackson, although his young Stevie Wonder was spot on, if brief.

The supporting cast is fine. We see Doug Storm hamming it up as Ed Sullivan introducing The Supremes, among many other cultural, political and musical references of the period.

Okay, class, this show is for extra credit, not required. Reaction papers should exceed no more than two pages, double-spaced.

Motown: The Musical
Wednesday, March 8th, 2017 7:30pm to Sunday, March 12th, 2017 7:00pm
OKC Broadway
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, 201 N. Walker Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK 73102
405-297-2264
Prices from: $45.00

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About the Author

Larry Laneer

Larry Laneer has reviewed theater for several Oklahoma City publications.  He has...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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