The hit parade reels on seemingly forever in “Motown: The Musical,” a dramatically slapdash but musically vibrant trip back to the glory days of Detroit, where the vinyl pouring out of an unassuming two-story house took the world by storm, all but paving the city’s streets with gold records.
Before we’ve even settled in our seats, we’re being dazzled by a sing-off between the Four Tops and the Temptations. Gladys Knight and the Pips and Marvin Gaye later tear into their dueling versions of the enduring classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” (Don’t make me choose, please: I couldn’t live without either.) Snapping their fingers and smoothly wriggling their hips, Diana Ross and the Supremes bop through several of their ear-tickling hits.
There’s Smokey Robinson, too, and Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, and Mary Wells. Something close to rapture spreads through the audience when a magical little dynamo, the young Michael Jackson, takes the stage, spinning like a tiny top and singing with a grown man’s soul in his little boy’s voice box.
These performers are obviously not appearing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, where Broadway’s latest jukebox musical opened Sunday night. Instead, their indelible styles are being effectively recreated by a blazing cast of gifted singers impersonating this crowded pantheon of pop-chart immortals. Our tour guide on this busy joy ride through the Motor City of the late 1960s and ’70s, and the show’s principal character, is Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. Mr. Gordy wrote the book for the musical (adapted from his 1994 autobiography), and his recollections of the era and the artists he discovered form the shaky scaffolding for a musical that is, if nothing else, an efficient endorphin-delivery system for baby boomers.
The story begins at the end, in 1983, when a television special celebrating the Motown legacy is being prepared as a disgruntled Berry (Brandon Victor Dixon) broods in his Los Angeles home, waffling about whether to participate. He’s bruised by the company’s decline, which has been hastened by the departure of many acts he discovered, groomed and elevated into stardom. A few left lawsuits behind as parting gifts. (Although Berry mostly comes across as a heroic figure bordering on saintly, to Mr. Gordy’s credit — and that of the show’s script consultants, David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan — his conflicts with various artists are not entirely scrubbed from this unofficial record.)
The musical, mechanically directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, then flashes back to the beginnings, when a young Berry — Junior to his large, loyal and loving family — is casting about for a career. A brief stab at boxing fizzles (cuing one of the show’s few — and unfortunate — original songs), and soon Berry is calling on his family’s money to back his dream of creating a record company. He’s already written and sold a couple of songs to Jackie Wilson (a funny Eric LaJuan Summers), but only by owning publishing rights and producing records can real money be made.
More than 50 songs (!) are performed in “Motown,” usually, alas, in truncated versions. Most are simply presented as concert versions by the actors playing the artists who made them famous, but a few are shoehorned awkwardly into the story as “book” songs.
Sometimes the fit seems right, as when Berry serenades his family to the tune of “Money (That’s What I Want),” best known in the Beatles version. Elsewhere, the fit is forced, if not ludicrous. “You’re All I Need to Get By” is performed by Mr. Dixon’s Berry as a duet with Diana Ross (a silky Valisia LeKae) in which they pledge their love. (Never mind that it was recorded by Gaye and Tammi Terrell.) Stranger still, after Diana and Berry are found in bed after an unsuccessful attempt at lovemaking, she leaps up and begins singing “I Hear a Symphony.” It’s like a parody of a Viagra commercial.
Making way for so much music means that “Motown” breezily scrimps on storytelling. Characters come and go so quickly we barely have time to register their famous names, let alone get to know them. Stevie Wonder is introduced as a talented tyke in Act I but doesn’t reappear until the second act, fully grown at the keyboards, singing in Washington to promote the creation of a holiday dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (“Damn, our little Stevie, making history,” Berry opines with cornball sincerity.) The relationship between Berry and Diana moves to the foreground at various intervals, but even major Motown figures like Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown) and Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark) are reduced to making intermittent cameo appearances.
The dialogue is often vinyl-stiff, written in a shorthand meant to convey as much story as possible in as few words as possible. When Florence Ballard begins behaving erratically with the Supremes, Berry darkly intones: “The pressure of fame is vicious. Not everyone can go the distance.” Enter Flo’s replacement, Cindy Birdsong, seconds later. Rather more tastelessly, Gaye makes a brief allusion to his father, at whose hands he would later die (but not in this upbeat musical, of course).
The telegraphic nature of the book derives partly from the impossibility of telling the stories of all the major Motown artists in a single musical. (The Supremes alone inspired their own musical, “Dreamgirls.”) For a full and coherent history of Mr. Gordy’s game-changing music factory, you’d need to check out Gerald Posner’s engrossing book “Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power.”
But audiences don’t go to Broadway musicals to see audiobooks performed live, and few are likely to complain that “Motown” skimps on what they have come to hear: the sweet stream of music that fused the soul of rhythm and blues with the ear worm hooks of pop to create a genre that played a role in America’s changing attitudes toward race in the 1960s. (Mr. Gordy’s general lack of involvement in politics and his lifelong focus on business become a little bit blurred here; he comes across as far more socially engaged than in Mr. Posner’s book.)
The performers put their songs across with verve and an admirable lack of self-consciousness, given that the audience is likely to be intimately familiar with every nuance of phrasing from the original recordings. Ms. LeKae’s cotton-candy voice matches up nicely with Ms. Ross’s, and she twitches her twiggy frame capably as Diana moves from awkward teenager to glamorous diva, even if the real Ms. Ross’s metallic edges — or should I say, as I’m sure she would prefer, the real Miss Ross’s metallic edges? — have been softened into mohair. As Gaye, Mr. Clarke exudes sexual magnetism during his brief appearances. Mr. Brown’s honeyed croon replicates Mr. Robinson’s convincingly, and in the central role of Berry — I’m tempted to say the only role — Mr. Dixon sings with passionate fervor, although in the dialogue scenes he’s only as good as his often flat-footed material.
But while the audience lapped up virtually all of the musical numbers — even Rick James and Teena Marie drop into the party, briefly and probably unnecessarily — the wildest applause erupted when Raymond Luke Jr., one of two performers who portray the boyish Jackson (along with the young Berry and the young Stevie Wonder), came bounding onstage, exuding the self-confidence and charm of the preternaturally seasoned performer he’s playing.
For all the richness of its gold-and-platinum-plated soundtrack, “Motown” would be a much more satisfying nostalgia trip if Mr. Gordy and his collaborators were more effective curators of both story and song, rather than trying to encompass the whole of the label’s fabled history in two and a half hours. Irresistible as much of the music is, I often had the frustrating impression that I was being forced to listen to an LP being played at the dizzying, distorting speed of a 45.
Motown: The Musical
Book by Berry Gordy, based on his autobiography, “To Be Loved: the Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown”; music and lyrics from the Motown catalog; directed by Charles Randolph-Wright; choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams; music supervision and arrangements by Ethan Popp; sets by David Korins; costumes by Esosa; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by Peter Hylenski; projections by Daniel Brodie; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; associate director, Schele Williams; assistant choreographer, Brian H. Brooks; production stage manager, Julia P. Jones; technical supervisor, David Benken; general manager, Bespoke Theatricals; executive producer, Nina Lannan; music coordinator, Michael Keller; orchestrations by Mr. Popp and Bryan Crook; music director/conductor, Joseph Joubert; dance music arrangements by Zane Mark; additional arrangements by Mr. Crook; script consultants, David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan; creative consultant, Christie Burton. Presented by Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris and Mr. Gordy. At the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan, (877) 250-2929, ticketmaster.com. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
WITH: Brandon Victor Dixon (Berry Gordy), Valisia LeKae (Diana Ross), Charl Brown (Smokey Robinson), Bryan Terrell Clark (Marvin Gaye), Eric LaJuan Summers (Jackie Wilson and others) and Raymond Luke Jr. and Jibreel Mawry (young Berry/Stevie Wonder/Michael Jackson).