Jibreel Mawry of Detroit will play Michael Jackson, a young Berry Gordy Jr. and Stevie Wonder in “Motown.” (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images)
New York — Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. smiled and laughed as Jibreel Mawry of Detroit sang "I Want You Back" as a young Michael Jackson at a media preview of "Motown: The Musical," held at the New 42nd Street rehearsal studio in New York on Thursday.
The Stout Middle School student was just named Wednesday to play Jackson, a young Gordy and a young Stevie Wonder, alternating the roles with Raymond Luke Jr., 12, of San Diego.
The company hit the jackpot — Mawry exuded the spark and electricity of the youthful King of Pop, filling the small studio space with charm and attitude. "It's an honor," Mawry said later of portraying the three key Motown males. "They all changed things and inspired people."
Asked which role — Gordy, Jackson or Wonder — was his favorite, the 12-year-old sounded like a Broadway veteran. "They can all be fun," he said. "If you have fun with it, it's easy."
Preview performances of "Motown: The Musical" start March 11, with the official premiere set for April 14.
The man who lived it all, Gordy, an age-defying 83, sat in the front row of the rehearsal space chatting with his fellow record mogul, Sony Music CEO Doug Morris. Morris is one of the show's producers.
"Motown: The Musical" tells the story of Gordy's struggle to launch a Detroit record company. What he started was almost a social movement, as Motown helped bridge the racial divide in the 1960s with its joyful "Sound of Young America," an irresistible mélange of pop and R&B with an insistent rhythm that brought together suburbanites and urban youth to dance in the streets.
The musical also tells Gordy's personal story, growing up in 1930s and '40s Detroit, launching Motown in 1959 and falling in love with one of his biggest stars, Diana Ross of the Supremes.
As the writer of the "book" that forms the narrative of the musical, Gordy is the nexus of the production, the patriarch whom the young performers look to for affirmation.
And he's using many of the same methods he used back in the early days of Motown, encouraging friendly competition between his "workers."
"I always say, the best idea wins, and if someone has a better idea, I'm happy when they do." Just as at Motown, "We fight but we never argue," Gordy insisted.
Forty years ago last fall, he was in New York for the premiere of "Lady Sings the Blues," his — and Motown's — debut film. That was exciting, but this is different, he said.
"This is so much more exciting. When I first started with this musical, everybody was skeptical about how I was going to Broadway-ize Motown. I said, 'I'm not going to do that, I'm bringing Motown to Broadway.'"
Producer Kevin McCollum explained why he found the project so exciting.
"Gordy formed a family through art and talent, and transformed America not by guns, not by politics, but with music," McCollum said. "When our president won the election again, (Stevie Wonder's) 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered' was played. This is music that gets under your skin so that skin (color) and politics no longer matter."
And yes, Gordy sings — a scene in which Broadway veterans Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy and Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross sing "(You're All I Need) To Get By," a song made famous by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, was presented at the Thursday preview.
"We suspend disbelief a little bit," Dixon joked afterward, about his role as a singing Gordy. He ages from 30-something to 60-ish while playing the Motown founder. The musical spans the years from the '30s up to 1983.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright joked that he went to talk to Gordy about the musical, "Because I just wanted to meet Berry Gordy. Growing up, Berry Gordy was one of the few role models we had; he gave us permission to dream. I'm so grateful he decided to do it in theater — he wanted theater because it's live, it's present and you're there."
"These are real actors," Gordy said. "I can do it a lot more (easily) making a film, in the editing room, but here you're dealing with human beings. Every day it's live, it's different."
Wright was excited about another Detroiter in the cast, Jawan Jackson, 25, who was chosen to play Temptation Melvin Franklin, the elusive bass voice that the company was having trouble finding.
Until he was swept away to appear in his first Broadway show, Jackson worked as a teacher giving after-school acting classes in the Ypsilanti public schools. A video audition DVD he sent, and a subsequent audition at Studio A at Hitsville in December, won him the part.
Jackson was still bubbling over with excitement, although he was getting used to things. "If you can sing in front of Berry Gordy, you can sing in front of anybody," he said.
Jackson has an advantage in playing the late Franklin. His cousin Yvonne Bowie attended Northwestern High School with the Temptation, and has given him lots of input on the way her former classmate moved and looked.
"My family thought I'd just gotten some little role. When they found out I was playing Melvin Franklin, oh, they were excited," he said with a grin.
There is an obvious affection between Gordy and the cast; when he first saw LeKae in the rehearsal space, Gordy called out "Hey, Black" to her, deploying the nickname he and Ross used for each other in the '60s.
LeKae hasn't met Ross yet. "She's been busy touring, but Mr. Gordy just talked to her, and she said she's looking forward to meeting me."
As far as comparisons to "jukebox" musicals such as "Jersey Boys," producer McCollum dismissed that.
"It's easy to be cynical, but Motown was more than a label; it was a lifestyle," he said. When Berry Gordy and Diana Ross sing "(You're All I Need) To Get By," McCollum points out, it advances the story, which doesn't happen in most jukebox musicals. And it's about their love affair, but it's also about the times, the roiling racial/social revolution of the '60s.
Ticket information for "Motown: The Musical" is at motownthemusical.com.