In his 1995 autobiography, pop music impresario Berry Gordy spends 500 pages recounting the 30-year history of Motown Records.
In the recent Broadway hit “Motown: the Musical,” playing at the Saenger Theatre through Jan. 24, the story gets trimmed down to 21/2 hours. Naturally, some of the details get glossed over, and many of the hit songs are reduced to snippets, but as the familiar tunes intertwine with some of American history’s biggest moments, the show successfully captures the enduring legacy of Motown.
“Motown: the Musical” begins and ends in 1983, on the eve of “Motown 25,” a television special celebrating the label’s silver anniversary. This narrative framework provides an opportunity for Gordy to reflect on his success, from his humble beginnings to the top of the charts.
Gordy is played by Chester Gregory, whose strong presence carries the show. Though Gordy got his start as a songwriter and was never known as a performer, Gregory shines when he takes on songs like “Money (That’s What I Want)” or “My Girl.”
As Diana Ross, Allison Semmes (who is promoted here from her role as lesser-Supreme Florence Ballard in the Broadway production) spends much of the first act blending in, nearly getting lost in performances of Supremes staples like “Where Did Our Love Go?”
By the second act, as Ross comes into her own as a solo performer, so does Semmes. A highlight of the show is Semmes’ rendition of “Reach Out and Touch,” which includes some charming audience interaction.
As one might expect, the emphasis in “Motown” is more on the music than the people behind it. The friendships that are central to the Motown story — Gordy, Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye — get lip service, but there’s not much character development. Dramatic interludes exist to move the plot along rather than to reveal any true emotional depth or seriously explore complicated relationships.
In their supporting roles as Robinson and Gaye, Jesse Nager and Jarran Muse bolster the story, but the characters never evolve — particularly Robinson, who Nager plays as a one-dimensional comic sidekick — and their musical performances are overshadowed by the more powerful voices of Gregory and Semmes.
Director Charles Randolph keeps the hit parade rolling at a quick clip, sometimes to the point where it feels rushed. Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams keep things lively with period-appropriate choreography, from the synchronized steps of doo-wop to the flashy moves of disco and proto-hip hop.
Musical performances are uneven throughout. Some of the vocal groups — the Temptations, the Four Tops — lack the crisp vocals and sharp harmonies that made their songs famous. Other performers, like Elijah Ahmad Lewis as Stevie Wonder and Leon Outlaw Jr. as a young Michael Jackson, successfully channel the star power of the characters they’re playing.
Throughout the show, “Motown” hones in on the record label’s social significance during tumultuous times, from Gordy’s insistence that Motown records are pop music, not “race music” and should be played alongside white recording artists on mainstream radio, to the tension of Motown artists dodging bullets as they tour the segregated South.
Some of the most moving moments in “Motown” include a Vietnam protest set to the heavy funk of Edwin Starr’s “War” and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. soundtracked by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” proving that the show is most effective when the songs transcend sheer nostalgia and reflect the power of music as an agent of social change.