Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Theater Review: Motown, the Musical-- The Bushnell

Reed L.Shannon as Michael Jackson, center, with the Jackson 5 in from the first national tour (photos from the current tour were nt available). Photo: Joan Marcus
A Foot-Stomping, Hand-Clapping Trip Down Memory Lane
By Lauren Yarger
Featuring classic hits such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the musical Motown, making a tour stop at The Bushnell, tells the story behind the hits of the legendary record label.

The 25th anniversary of Motown, the brainchild of Berry Gordy (Chester Gregory), provides the catalyst for this collection of nearly 60 songs performed by a large ensemble cast under the direction of Charles Randolph-Wright. Music Direction and Conducting is by Darryl Archibald with Music Supervision, Arrangements and Orchestrations by Ethan Popp, Co-orchestrations and Additional Arrangements by Bryan Crook and Dance Arrangements by Zane Mark.

Gordy isn’t excited about the anniversary reunion of Motown’s artists, many of whom left the label for more lucrative deals, and isn’t sure he wants to attend the celebration concert. In a sort of flashback, we see how the company started and follow Gordy through its success from 1938 to 1983. Some of the stars owing their careers to Motown are Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), Smoky Robinson (Jesse Nager), Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse, though I saw understudy Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. opening night along with several other understudies) and Michael Jackson (the role is shared by J.J. Batteast  and Leon Outlaw Jr. who also portray the young Berry and young Stevie Wonder--  I saw Outlaw opening night).

There's also some story in there amongst all of the tunes including the business and romantic relationship between Berry and Ross. The musical's book is based on Gordy's autobiography “To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Music, The Moments of Motown;” 

Projections (by Daniel Brodie) show pictures and images on the set by David Korins to remind us of the racial tension of the times. The mood shifts in the second act as the music starts reflecting protests against war and racial injustice. Director Charles Randolph-Wright skillfully blends the elements and keeps us entertained for the more than two hours and 45 minutes running time (those 8 pm starts mean a late night).

Many of the songs are truncated, so we hear just enough of our favorites without being overwhelmed. The vocals are good with Semmes and Gregory standing out. Some of the ensemble stand out in roles like Stevie Wonder and Ed Sullivan, but they are uncredited in the program so I am unable to give a shout out to those specific actors.)

Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams add choreography that is easily recognizable for groups like the Jackson Five, The Marvelettes or The Temptations. The vocals are good. (Standing out is a very funny Ed Sullivan who is uncredited in the program.) The sound mix (designed by
Peter Hylenski) could use an adjustment with percussion often overshadowing vocals.

The full house sang along at times and sometimes burst into applause for favorite numbers. An interactive bit with the audience did not play well, however, as members were sought to join Diana Ross for her first solo engagement.  Costumes advance the decades (design by Esosa with hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe).

Overall, a fun and entertaining show. If you miss it here at the Bushnell, or if you want to enjoy this legendary music again, the show will play Broadway again for a limited run with previews beginning in July

 Motown runs through March 37 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday: 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm Tickets $34.50-$121.50: (860) 987-5900;

Other credits:
Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, Script Consulting by David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan, Creative Consulting by Christine Burton

Erick Buckley, Nik Alexander, ChadaƩ, Chante Carmel, Stephen Cerf, Darius Crenshaw, Lynorris Evans, Anissa Felix, Talya Groves, Rod Harrelson, Robert Hartwell, Dana Marie Ingraham, Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr., Trisha Jeffrey, Loren Lott, Jarvis B. Manning Jr., Krisha Marcano, Marq Moss, Rashad Naylor, Ramone Owens, Olivia Puckett, Nicholas Ryan, Jamison Scott, Joey Stone, Doug Storm, Martina Sykes, Nik Walker, Galen J. Williams

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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