NEW YORK — Berry Gordy, the man who discovered Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells (and on and on), was a peerless record producer when it came to handpicking talent and building careers. But Berry Gordy, the genuinely confounding new Broadway show "Motown the Musical" reveals, is just about the worst person in the world to write the story of Berry Gordy: the founder of Motown records, a music giant he built in a Detroit house under the hubristic handmade sign "Hitsville U.S.A.," which turned out to be nothing less than the darn all-American truth.
If only Gordy had given a few interviews to the best book writers in musical theater and stepped away, offering total creative freedom. If only he'd understood, and insisted, that a musical needs visual metaphors and structural truths bigger than their apparent subjects. If only he'd realized that the social context and artistry behind the greatest hits of Smokey Robinson or Gaye matters far more in the theater than the familiar "Behind the Music"-style minutiae and deal-making of the record business. If only he'd stood aside and let someone offer up more of the complex Detroit stew that bubbled up into Motown Records. If only he'd resisted the temptation to overstuff the show with songs diced up by routine little scenes. If only he'd first taken "Motown the Musical" out of town.
He should have started with home first. "Motown," which is narratively anchored around the label's 25th anniversay show in Pasadena, Calif., in 1983 and flashes backward from there, has no clear point of view, no rich storytelling and nowhere near enough Detroit.
Yet book-writer Gordy holds the reins of a unique catalog of music. Most Broadway musicals based on the work of single recording artists like The Shirelles or the Beach Boys mostly appeal to a single generation or race. Not the long-lived, love-for-everyone Motown, which blazes from The Temptations and The Four Tops through Michael Jackson. And this catalog, a collective musical portrait of the struggles and triumphs of black America in a time of tumult, does not just resonate with the American public but with the global public, representatives of which are currently packing the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where "Motown" opened Sunday night after doing huge business in previews.
It is hard to overestimate the enthusiasm and the excitement of this show's audience, the extent to which people are leaning into the material and willing it to succeed. If "Motown the Musical" were one of those book-free, second-tier jukebox shows that show up on Broadway from time to time, its structural flaws would be forgivable and its clunks laughed off into the night. But this is the story of an American treasure, an essential cultural history that comes with all the necessary music, music that would be difficult to assemble in this way ever again.
Aside from a killer pit orchestra — the beneficiary of a top-tier sound system that far exceeds what you usually get on Broadway — the strengths of "Motown the Musical" lie within its celebrity-infused performers, especially Valisia LeKae's formidable leading facsimile of Ross (a very challenging role, executed with verve), Brian Terrell Clark's nuanced Gaye, Charl Brown's warm-centered Smokey Robinson and the sensational kid Raymond Luke, Jr., who plays the young Jackson, among others. As Gordy himself, Brandon Victor Dixon has a tough, sketchy assignment, and you sense he feels it, although he sings well enough. Better yet, the immensely talented ensemble has actors who play multiple Motown artists, including Eric LaJuan Summers, he of the large, active tongue, who just nails Jackie Wilson, to the delight of the crowd.
Will this careful attention to musical veracity and bravura performance be enough to ensure success? Perhaps. With some 60 songs in this show (way too many), everyone gets to hear at least part of their favorites. But some of the scenes, not the least of which is a moment when Gordy chronicles his sexual failings with Ross (a flaw! a flaw!) are laughably bad. Charles Randolph-Wright's direction feels rushed, frenetic, not fully in control, and David Korins' scenic design is a similarly chaotic melange of styles.
The concert scenes are the best scenes, and the music still sometimes thrills (when the numbers are not squelched and squashed). How could these songs not thrill? And, there is one thing at the Lunt-Fontanne to really love: the talent in the show acts as a reminder of why Motown became Motown in the first place.
Whopping young talent, given a big break by the right man at the right time, a man who should have stepped back now and watched and listened.
"Motown The Musical" plays on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway and 46th St. Call 877-250-2929 or visit motownthemusical.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye