'Motown' musical captures real thing — in surreal twist
It was a foregone conclusion that the premiere of "Motown: The Musical" at the Fisher Theatre, just half a mile down West Grand Boulevard from where it all happened, would be juJst a bit surreal.
After all, at times you'd be looking at the real Stevie Wonder in the audience and then you'd look onstage to see his stage impersonator, Elijah Ahmad Lewis. On one side of the audience, the real Mickey Stevenson watched intently as a reasonable facsimile of his jive-talking young self tried to hustle a young Berry Gordy into hiring him (Gordy did and Stevenson went on to co-write and produce hits like "Dancing in the Street").
And there sat Smokey Robinson, serenely watching the stage as Nicholas Christopher, the young actor playing him, acted as comic foil to Gordy, becoming hysterical at the idea of moving to California with Motown (earthquakes, you see). And poignantly, the late Florence Ballard's three daughters watched as the narrative referenced their mother's troubles as she became increasingly unreliable onstage in the Supremes.
This is Gordy's origin story, from his viewpoint, and he's got a lot of history to cover and a lot of vocal groups to jam into three hours. Some of the early narrative seems to have been compressed a bit from the original Broadway production, but it's good to at least hear some of the greats such as Funk Brothers James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin name-checked.
A segment that featured disc jockeys from around the country playing Motown songs included Tom Clay of WJBK, who initially brushes Gordy off, saying "We're a pop station, we don't play race records."
The Detroit audience erupts at the mention of several of the jocks' names, including Martha Jean the Queen and "Frantic" Ernie Durham.
One of the biggest ovations, and justly so, came when young Reed L. Shannon came dancing out as Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5, purple hat cocked just so, his purple fringe vest an exact copy of one of MJ's '70s outfits. Shannon's voice perfectly evoked the beauty of Jackson's winsome young voice on songs like "Who's Lovin' You," and "I Want You Back."
Before the show, Leon Outlaw Jr., who also plays Jackson, said the biggest challenge playing the pop icon was to capture his shyness when he wasn't performing. "I'm not shy," he shrugged. And oh yes, he likes those over-the-top (but absolutely authentic) funky outfits he gets to wear. "I wish I could wear those in my everyday life," he said.
Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye also was impressive as he sang "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" and later, some of "What's Going On," a cappella, several voices in the Motown-heavy audience called out in approval. Muse has the requisite height and looks to be convincing too.
At one point in the musical, Allison Semmes as Diana Ross sweeps out in a fabulous silvery white gown to sing "Reach Out and Touch."
Semmes tapped audience members to sing with her, and this being a Detroit premiere audience, almost everyone was a ringer. She invited a woman with coppery-blond hair to sing with her, and she belted out the lyrics with special verve to the audience's delight. When Semmes asked her name, she said softly "Dorinda Clark Cole" — one of the Clark Sisters.
For the final curtain call, producers Kevin McCollum and Doug Morris joined Gordy and as many Motown alumni as they could fit onstage, including Robinson, Wonder, Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Claudette Robinson of the Miracles and the Velvelettes.
Gordy had the mic and was comically disinclined to give it up, even to the real Stevie Wonder, despite producer McCollum's encouragement. Finally, the mic went to Stevie, who sang "I Wish" until his dramatic counterpart Lewis bravely took the mic and finished the song.
The music, that incredible body of songs, has been the big draw for this musical, and several Motown musicians, including producer Clay McMurray and guitarist Dennis Coffey, approved way the music was presented.
"They captured the sound of Motown, that bottom," said Coffey. "Most Broadway music doesn't sound like that. Berry must have worked with them to make sure that happened."
'Motown: The Musical'
Written by Berry Gordy
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Through Nov. 16
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Ticketmaster.com or the Fisher Theatre (313-872-1000)