It may not be the Summer of Love, but this certainly has become the Spring of Nostalgia for St. Louisans of a certain age. The latest chapter is Motown the Musical, which opened at the Fox Theatre Tuesday night.
It’s the story of Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, as presented by and written by Berry Gordy with much of the music credited to Berry Gordy. Many people would argue that it’s not historically accurate, or at the very least, complete, but that’s not why most of the audience buys tickets. They’re here for the music, and they get plenty of it.
The play opens with Gordy (Chester Gregory) holed up in his residence refusing to attend the 25th anniversary concert marking his founding of Motown Records. Many of his artists have left, wooed away by more lucrative contracts, and he’s become deeply involved in the movie industry, which has been a financial drain. They’re ungrateful and disloyal, he says. Life is, overall, not so glorious these days.
But it was back when things started up...and the flashback begins. Smokey Robinson (David Kaverman), who eventually became a vice-president of Motown, arrives and so does Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), for a while Gordy’s brother-in-law, who stick with him. Then a group of girl singers appeared at the door, giving the Gordy character a chance to use a line about “that girl with the big eyes”. Well, yes, of course it’s the Supremes and the girl is Diana Ross (Allison Semes), with whom he went on to have a love affair and a child.
But the story is not the point of this show, it’s a loose framework for lots and lots of songs. Alas, almost none of them get a full airing, sometimes barely a full verse. But the sound is rich and full, and after an initial blasting, not bone-rattling.
Gregory doesn’t seem to age much as Gordy, but he sounds great, both solo and with Kaverman and with Muse. Semes’ Diana Ross is mostly very different from the “Miss Ross” we tend to think of as a legend, but the softness is logical when we’re looking at a kid not so long out of the housing projects. She really doesn’t burst into full diva mode, musically, until the scenes at the reunion concert, but we can see and hear her growth en route. And a particular shout-out to young CJ Wright, who alternates in the role of the very young Gordy, young Stevie Wonder (whose body language he has down pat), and for several numbers Michael Jackson in his early years.
The choreography is excellent, from the doo-wop groups like the Four Tops to scenes like the one with “What’s Goin’ On”, which closes the first act. It felt, quite appropriately, like a visual from Les Miserables or something at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, beautiful and serious.
It’s all about the tunes, all hits, all the time, as the radio stations would say.
Small bites of lots of good stuff, mostly, a meal of mostly tapas, if you will rather than full-sized courses. But like tapas, one finishes feeling full but not stuffed and bloated.
Motown the Musical
through March 26
527 N. Grand