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Berry Gordy and The Motown Mystique

Wednesday night’s opening of the smash hit play Motown the Musical saw more famous Detroiters gathered in one spot than we have since the golden years of the Motown Revues at the fabulous Fox Theater. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with musical royalty like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Duke Fakir, Claudette Robinson, Mary Wilson and a host of other local celebrities in the opulence of the famed Fisher Theater, it was an emotional experience that these greats had come home.

Coupled with the fact that only few blocks away and 50 years ago, these then-relatively unknown artists were polishing their acts at Hitsville USA on the city’s W. Grand Blvd., Motown the Musical on opening night became a transformative experience.

More than a Motown Revue — which would have been musical magic in and of itself— the remarkably honest narrative is as scintillating as it is sentimental. From the Flame Show Bar to Gordy’s blazing love affair with protégé-turned-superstar Diana Ross to the controversial decision to move Motown to Los Angeles, it’s all there. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, “Motown the Musical” is based on Motown founder and former president Berry Gordy’s intriguing and informative 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved,” subtitled “The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.”

And as well-heeled guests fought a losing battle to stay in their seats and avoid dancing and screaming as they did at those popular Motown Revues, the impulse to sing-along cannot be suppressed. When the re-creation of girl group Martha & the Vandellas inspires us with “Dancing in the Streets,” and the reincarnation of Marvin Gaye takes the stage and incites us with “Let’s Get It On,” it’s irresistible, so let go and sing the songs that made the whole world sing.

While the singing is superb and the performances stellar, with Jarran Muse in the role of Marvin Gaye and a spine-chilling performance from Allison Semmes as Motown’s first lady Diana Ross, you can’t help but reminisce and wish for just one more song from their creators. Portraying Gordy brilliantly (and with the approval of Mr. Gordy) is Clifton Oliver. Nicholas Christopher is a very lovable Smokey Robinson and the energetic cast makes the experience all that more vibrant.

And just when you thought you knew all there is to know about the most historic record label in history — as Detroiters have been known to brag — there are intimate insights and behind-the scenes stories adding rich layers to the production. We get a new and more informed perspective on Berry Gordy’s and his handling of sensitive matters, including the problems with Florence Ballard, his relationship with Marvin Gaye, the 25th Anniversary celebration and scores of touching Motown moments.

Motown the Musical much like a Motown song, has Gordy’s signature stamped all over it. The Chairman insists that a song — and in this case a stage play —tells a self-contained story, and Motown the Musical delivers. As one elated patron explained, “People wonder why and how there was so much talent in Detroit. Actually there was as much talent in Philly and Chicago and New York. But they didn’t have Berry Gordy … we did.”

Motown the Musical runs though Nov. 16 at the Fisher Theater. For tickets and showtimes visit http://www.broadwayindetroit.com/

 

 

 

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