April 11, 2013 at 10:22 am

'Motown: The Musical' ready to storm Broadway

Get ready for what Berry Gordy has said is his last big creative push, "Motown: The Musical." It premieres this Sunday in New York, and critics will finally weigh in on how well his quintessentially Detroit rags-to-riches story translates into a Broadway musical.

The show has gone through a month of previews, tweaking and trimming numbers from its length (just under three hours), which features snippets of some 70 Motown hits.

The details of Gordy's story are familiar to Detroiters and Motown fans, especially those who've read his memoir "To Be Loved." Now that narrative, as Broadway lore, will truly become part of the cultural history of mainstream America.

The producers said they believe it will transcend the somewhat pejorative phrase "jukebox musical" because of the social importance of Motown in 20th century race relations, with black and white teenagers brought together by their love for the irresistible music.

"It's the story of how one man formed a family through art and talent, and transformed America not by guns, not by politics but with music," said producer Kevin McCollum. "There's no mistake, and it's not arbitrary that when our president won the election again, 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered' was played. This is music that gets under your skin, so that skin color and politics no longer matter."

Piecing together what we saw (and heard) at the musical's media day in February, along with accounts by Motown personnel and fans from the previews, here are several things to watch for in "Motown: The Musical."

Louis vs. Schmeling

The musical starts out with Gordy reluctant to go to "Motown 25" because all of his stars have left him, but then it soon goes into flashback to the event in June 1938 that inspired Gordy to achieve. The Gordy family is gathered around the radio at their home, on Farnsworth and St. Antoine, to listen to a boxing match between Germany's Max Schmeling and Detroit's own Joe Louis. The bout, which Louis won in a decisive technical knockout, had huge political and racial implications beyond the sheer sport of it.

As Gordy explained in his memoir: "The fight had been perceived by everyone as a superpower contest between America, land of the free, and Nazi Germany. I was only eight at the time, but I knew that Joe Louis was a hero of all the people, but he was black like me."

Gordy sees the joy Louis' victory brings his family and Detroiters as they take to the streets to celebrate. In the musical, he tells his father he wants to be Joe Louis. Pops Gordy cautions his son that he can't be Joe Louis, but he needs to be "the best Berry Gordy he can be." There's a new Gordy song about the fight in the musical to move the action along.

The famously tough sister

Gordy wanted to borrow $1,000 from the family "bank," but his stern older sister, always wise to Gordy's fantasies and general lack of follow-through, famously said no. When Esther saw that she was outvoted by the rest of the company, she reluctantly agreed, but only if the amount of the loan was reduced. Hence, the famous $800 loan to Gordy to buy Hitsville. Edwards was of course one of Gordy's most trusted advisers because of her honesty.

Detroit places

Among the many Motor City locations you'll see in "Motown: the Musical" are Gordy's 3D Record Mart record store (in the family compound at Farnsworth and St. Antoine); the Ford foundry and/or the Mercury assembly line, where he worked briefly; his sister Gwen Gordy's house; the Flame Showbar (Canfield at John R), where he would go see Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, and where his glamorous sisters Gwen and Anna worked as photo girls; Jackie Wilson's manager Nat Tarnapol's office (on Alexandrine, Detroit's "Music Row"); and of course, Hitsville's Studio A at 2648 W. Grand Blvd.

'Dancing in the Street'

The song that propelled Martha Reeves and the Vandellas into worldwide fame is a key element in the musical. It's used to show how Motown's fame spread around the country and around the world.

Berry loves Diana

Most of the second act is devoted to the Gordy-Ross love affair, although in real time, it didn't last all that long. But for narrative purposes, his passion for Ross mirrors the rise of the company and its crossover success until she leaves him and Motown.

Gordy can sing

Yes, Brandon Victor Dixon may be an idealized Gordy, but they did need someone who could sing, unlike the Chairman, who's often made fun of his own warbling. Literalist Motown fans also will have to get over the fact that Dixon, as Gordy, and Valisia LeKae, as Diana Ross, duet together on one of the most iconic of Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell numbers, "You're All I Need to Get By."

Sales department sings and dances

Well, not quite. Barney Ales, longtime head of sales for Motown, is in the musical — he's played by Dominic Nolfi. As Ales, Nolfi has a key scene in which he contends with a complaint from a Motown artist about the sales staff being all white. Ales explains that he can't get a black salesman past the door of any of the Southern distributors, although that soon changes. Motown becomes so popular, the Southern outlets are happy to have a black salesman call on them.

Broadway-intense dancing

While many of the Motown acts were good dancers made better by the in-house instruction of famed choreographer Cholly Atkins, several, including the suave Marvin Gaye and the effortlessly cool Smokey Robinson, weren't very good hoofers at all.

Still, busting a few moves onstage in between choruses of a song is much less taxing than the way Broadway performers move. Be prepared for a cast that is in almost perpetual motion, including the Gaye and Robinson characters.

Just like the records?

It'll be hard for longtime Motown fans not to nitpick every detail of every song in their heads, but some arrangements had to be altered for the demands of a live musical. Also, several of the singers add more drama to the vocals than was in the original, in service to the theatrics required.

Cast of rivals

Doug Morris, who heads up Sony Entertainment, is a producer on "Motown: The Musical." He and Gordy are good friends of many years, but Morris likes to tell the story of how when he started out at Laurie Records in the 1960s, Gordy was busy making his music obsolete.

Laurie was no small potatoes, with acts such as Dion on the roster. But Morris said, laughing, "Do you know how many record companies Motown put out of business? Once we heard Motown, it was over. We couldn't duplicate that sound — we tried." Morris makes no bones about how he idolizes his longtime friend Gordy. "It's amazing to go to work every day and tell the person who inspired you, 'thank you,'" Morris said.

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On stage

Here are the primary actors portraying Motown artists in the production:
Brandon Victor Dixon as Berry Gordy Jr.: Dixon, a veteran of productions including "The Color Purple," "House of Flowers" and "The Lion King" with strong singing and dancing chops, has the job of somehow showing the power and charisma that Gordy famously exudes. Dixon says he found his trip to Detroit and the Motown Historical Museum invaluable for his portrayal.
Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross: LeKae has gotten some strong word of mouth already for her portrayal of Ross. Her singing voice, and some say speaking voice, is Ross-perfect, and a slim frame and affinity for 1960s clothing and wigs help. For press day in February, LeKae wore a bouffant wig from her own collection and a ’60s-inspired frock, channeling Ross strongly.
Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson: Brown has to wear green contact lenses to play Smokey; it’s easier for him to match Robinson’s height, charm and vocal talent. "I compared myself with Smokey when I met him, and I’m a little taller," Brown said in February. But allowing for a little shrinkage over the years, Brown is just right.
Bryan Terrell Clark as Marvin Gaye: Clark portrays Gaye in both his early mohair-suited "Prince of Motown" years, singing "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" with Martha and the Vandellas behind him, as well as his "What’s Going On" persona. Gaye’s tussles with Gordy, his brother-in-law, over the direction of his career with "What’s Going On" are a factor. Clark said in February that he is introduced to the audience as Gordy first saw Gaye, playing the piano and singing at a Christmas party in 1960.
Ryan Shaw as Stevie Wonder: In costume, Shaw’s resemblance to Wonder is uncanny. "Motown: The Musical" is the Broadway debut for the two-time Grammy nominee who’s performed with Bonnie Raitt, Van Halen and B.B. King.
Jibreel Mawry and Raymond Luke Jr. as Young Berry Gordy, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder: Detroiter Mawry and Californian Luke clearly have a good time with each other, and they switch off playing Jackson and the other roles. Although both are 12, Mawry is taller and hopefully won't grow out of the roles anytime soon. As Michael Jackson, both get to wear those fabulous rainbow hues of the ’70s, plus those hats, those bell bottoms, etc. At February's press day, Mawry's performance as Jackson dancing and singing "I Want You Back" was dazzling.
Charles Randolph-Wright, director: Randolph-Wright directed the musical "Sophisticated Ladies" with Maurice Hines, the play "Ruined" and more. "For me, growing up, Berry Gordy was one of the few role models we had; he gave us permission to dream," Randolph-Wright said. "I’m so glad Berry Gordy wanted to do his story in the theater, because it’s live, it’s present and you’re there. There’s a T-shirt at the Motown museum that says, ‘Live it again,’ and Motown gets to live again with this musical."

Berry Gordy has brought his story of the founding of Motown to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. / Charles Sykes / Invision
Jibreel Mawry, left, and Raymond Luke Jr. alternate the roles of Young ... (Mark Kennedy / Associated Press)
Berry Gordy, left, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross, seen in ... (The Detroit News)