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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Theatre review: Motown The Musical is all about the music, sweet music

Jukebox musical’s slim book ensures the hits keep on coming

Let’s face it, most audiences don’t go shows like Motown The Musical for their stories. They go for the nostalgia, and to be swept away by the emotions the music elicits. The imperative then for these types of jukebox musicals is in meeting those expectations. Thankfully, the touring production, currently playing Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, delivers.

Covering the rise, and ultimately the fall, of Motown music mogul Berry Gordy from 1959 through 1983, Motown The Musical is a non-stop ride through the hits he helped create over a 25-year span. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye – all got their start with Gordy’s label and are all represented by reasonable facsimiles in this sometimes raucous musical.

While music takes centre stage over this two-a-half hour show, Berry Gordy’s book (yes, he wrote the book for the musical based on his memoir) does touch on some of his life. But it is all very cursory, and moving at a break neck speed, it largely becomes an excuse to introduce yet another hit song. Besides, with some 50+ musical numbers, it really doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

To bring it all together is a surprisingly large cast for a touring show. Leading the way is Kenneth Mosley as Gordy. Mosley does a nice job as the man-of-the-hour(s), with what Gordy himself has given him to work with on the story side of this musical’s equation. He does get to sing and, like the rest of this capable cast, delivers wonderfully.

Taking second billing in the production is the mononymous Trenyce, who plays Diana Ross. Gordy and Ross had a relationship and bore a child together, although that fact, like many others from Gordy’s life, is never divulged here. Instead, we get small snippets of their life together, including a particularly odd scene where the two first spend the night together, only to have Gordy experience a problem with erectile dysfunction.

But again, Motown The Musical is mostly about the music so we spend more time (a relative term here) on Ross’ ascension from The Supremes to solo performer, and eventually her movie career. There is an ease to Trenyce’s performance which is refreshing, considering the shoes she is filling here. As with most of the cast, she thankfully steers away from any real attempt at impersonation, but captures the essence of Ross, with the vocal abilities to do justice to her songs.

Kenneth Mosley as Berry Gordy, and Trenyce as Diana Ross in Motown The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Kenneth Mosley as Berry Gordy, and Trenyce as Diana Ross in Motown The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Second only to Mosley in stage time, Justin Reynolds does nice work as Smokey Robinson, the first artist Gordy signed, and who would go onto be a longtime friend. Matt Manuel shines as Marvin Gaye in a couple of more emotionally charged scenes including the gut-wrenching act one closer, “What’s Going On”.

And then there is the ensemble, who must be some of the hardest working actors/singers on stage right now as they perform as members of The Temptations, Jackson Five, The Four Tops, The Commodores, and pretty much every other Motown-signed artist or group.

The ensemble’s vocal abilities are about as impressive as their ability to perform Brian Harlan Brooks’ re-created choreography, from the original by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. Almost as non-stop as the hits themselves, it is at times exciting to watch.

While acknowledging the challenges of a touring show, when you demand top dollar, there is an expectation of perfection, and unfortunately this one was let down in a couple of areas.

Emilios Sosa’s costumes are accurate if not memorable, but Charles G. LaPointe’s hair and wig designs were either poorly applied or poorly designed. Perhaps those further away from the stage didn’t notice, but some of the men’s wigs were terribly ill-fitted. Facial hair applications didn’t fare so well either.  There were also a couple issues opening night with the sound cutting out, including an embarrassing opening number when the show’s very first lyrics were not heard.

Thanks to its non-stop musical hits, some very fine voices, and stellar choreography though, Motown the Musical may never have you dancing in the streets, but it may very well have you dancing in the aisles.

Motown The Musical. Book by Berry Gordy, based on his book, To Be Loved. Music by various artists by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. A Work Light Productions presentation presented by Broadway Across Canada. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (630 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until February 11. Visit for tickets and information.

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