Mirvish presents Motown The Musical in Toronto
Motown The Musical, currently making a stop in Toronto as part of its North American Tour, is a jukebox musical that tells the story of the independent record label and its founder, Berry Gordy, through the hit songs of the label’s many iconic artists. The music of the Motown catalogue is the show’s greatest strength but the show is weighed down by a plodding script.
Founded in 1959 in Detroit, Michigan; Motown became a defining influence in American pop music throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. The label broke down racial barriers and brought “Black” music; Motown’s signature sound mixing R&B, soul, funk, and pop, into the mainstream while launching the careers of legendary artists like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Rick James, and Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5 (all of whom appear as characters in the show).
The show features a parade of instantly-recognizable hits; approximately 60 songs including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “My Girl,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “I Want You Back,” and literally dozens more are fired off in rapid succession. However, for many of the songs only short excerpts are performed, offering more of a tease than a full taste.
While I enjoyed the music, I found the storytelling clunky; Gordy wrote the script himself and you can sort of tell. The show is based on Gordy’s autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown so perhaps not surprisingly, Gordy (played by Josh Tower) is presented as the Sun in the Motown solar system, and all the other characters simply revolve around him.
Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager) is presented as a one-note sidekick throughout the show and even though Gordy’s love affair with the label’s ingénue Diana Ross is a prominent plot point, Ross (channeled beautifully by Allison Semmes) is more of an impersonator’s caricature rather than a fully fleshed out character.
The consistently strong ensemble is full of powerhouse vocalists and often incredibly skilled impersonators but the script has characters coming and going without much consequence, never getting a chance to develop, so appearances by the other Motown artists are basically just cameos.
Though the events of the show happen against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, I thought the historical moments featured in the show were treated inelegantly; “Dr. King has been shot!” one character cries out with as much emotive anguish as the actor can muster. As a result of the shortcomings in the script, the show had a detached, documentary-like feel to it and I had trouble investing in any of the characters.
Despite the script, the musical numbers in the show are a lot of fun; the cast members really commit to selling the material and have a great energy. My personal favourites included the silky voiced Jarran Muse in the role of Marvin Gaye and spunky Nathaniel Cullors who wowed the audience as the young Michael Jackson.
The show’s design and creative teams also do some great work; Ethan Popp’s musical arrangements are vibrant and the show is a treat to listen to and Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams’ choreography heavily reference the original Motown dance moves but scale them up to Broadway proportions.
Motown The Musical is a celebration of Motown, its music and its legacy but it’s a little too ambitious trying to feature so much of the Motown catalogue that individual songs rarely have time to breathe and at times the plot takes away too much of the focus when a lot of us really did just come for the music.
- Motown The Musical is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West) through November 1, 2015
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $35.00 to $200.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Princes of Wales Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of Reed L Shannon (center) by Joan Marcus
Photo of Krisha Marcano, Allison Semmes & Trisha Jeffrey by Joan Marcus