by Michael P Coleman
I was born in Detroit during Motown’s heyday. It’s music — the Sound of Young America — is in my DNA. My uncle graduated from high school with Diana Ross, so I grew up hearing the stories AND the music.
And Wednesday night, it was good to get some of both, and a slice of home, at Sacramento’s Community Center Theatre.
Motown The Musical just barreled into Sacramento for a two-week run, through May 29th. It’s an adaptation of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s 1993 best-selling autobiography, To Be Loved. If you’re a fan of the music, it’s a must-see show that seamlessly blends decades of hits with the backdrop of emerging social events, like the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, & Martin Luther King, the desegregation of public facilities, and the Vietnam War.
It’s the story of the founding of Motown Records, once the most successful black-owned business in the country. Gordy started the label with $800 borrowed from his family’s credit union. 30 years later, he sold the company for over $60 million,
It’s also the story of the love affair between Gordy and Diana Ross. Allison Semmes brilliantly portrays Ross from high school ingenue to full-blown diva. None of the actors seem more in-character than Semmes, who over the course of the show displays a mastery of some of the legend’s more charming mannerisms, while giving audiences a fiery slice of Ross that’s much talked about but rarely seen. Chester Gregory is a standout as Gordy, and has a show-stopper, “Can I Close The Door On Love”, that’s reminiscent of Jennifer Holiday’s “And I’m Telling You” from Dreamgirls. Gregory and Semmes are magic together onstage, and give us a sense of the love, intimacy, and respect Gordy and Ross shared as the Motown empire was being built.
Leon Outlaw, Jr. plays young Berry Gordy, young Stevie Wonder, and baby Michael Jackson, almost stealing the show with a dead on “Who’s Lovin’ You” and in his first scene as an emerging superstar with his brothers, The Jackson 5. Similarly, Martina Sykes is brilliant in multiple roles, including Mary Wells, Cindy Birdsong of The Supremes, Gordy’s sister Gwen, and one of the Vandellas.
Nicholas Ryan’s “Smokey Robinson” was eerily on-point. I had to blink several times to make sure Ryan wasn’t lip-synching during The Miracle’s songs. Jarran Muse nails both 60s and 70s era Marvin Gaye.
Over 60 of Motown’s hundreds of hits are included in the show. You’ll have a hard time staying seated.
But at the end of the day, just as Motown was never about one person or persona, Motown The Musical is the sum of many amazing parts. There are simply too many of those parts to name. Go. Just go.
Click here to purchase tickets for Motown The Musical.