The history of the groundbreaking record label Motown is long and twisty, and those adjectives turn out to be the downfall of Motown the Musical, the tour of which opened Wednesday night at Bass Performance Hall.
With an hour-and-a-half-long first act, Motown packs a lot of story into a show that runs about about two hours and 45 minutes. Fortunately, because this is the story of a record label that released some of the 20th century’s most memorable pop tunes, it’s also packed with sing-along-worthy hits, although you’d be hard-pressed to find something close to the full song you fell in love with.
Many of the nearly 60 tunes are chopped into short clips and/or fit into medleys, such as a Jackson 5 section in the second act. The marvelous Nathaniel Cullors has the moves and voice to be a convincing young Michael Jackson (he also plays young Berry Gordy and young Stevie Wonder).
Wedged between the songs is the story of how Detroit native Berry Gordy (Chester Gregory), an aspiring songwriter in the 1950s, transformed his talent for crafting lyrics into managing black artists who would define a style of R&B. He signed such bands as the Temptations and the Four Tops, and nurtured Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager), Marvin Gaye (Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr.) and Diana Ross (Anissa Felix, standing in for Allison Semmes), whose ambition would become too big for the Supremes. Ross and Gordy also had a romantic relationship, and that’s just one subplot of Motown that suffers from the rapid-fire overall story arc.
Gregory is compelling as Gordy, a man whose dreams proved to be too much for him to handle on his own — bad money management, lawsuits and cutthroat competition led to the toppling of Gordy’s empire.
Nager gives a spot-on speaking impersonation of Robinson, Jackson is a commanding Gaye, and while Felix is lacking the girlish whisper of a voice that Ross was known for (Semmes, who played the role in the Dallas leg of the tour last year, nailed it), her singing voice makes up for that. One of the more entertaining sections is Ross’s solo debut in Las Vegas in 1969, as Felix comes into the audience and has several audience members sing with her to Reach Out and Touch.
Fast-moving set pieces slide on and off and make the many scene and geography locations feel pretty seamless, fitting for a story with the speed and force of a Texas thunderstorm.
And for all the flaws, there are plenty of chances to bop and sing along to such songs as ABC, Dancing in the Street, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), Shop Around and What’s Going On. In those moments, which are many, it’s like spending a few moments with long lost friends who have never really been out of your life.