Copious Notes

Go for the hits and the history: 'Motown' much mo than a sing-along musical

Chase Phillips of Louisville plays young Michael Jackson in the production of "Motown The Musical" that plays April 27 to 29 at the Lexington Opera House.
Chase Phillips of Louisville plays young Michael Jackson in the production of "Motown The Musical" that plays April 27 to 29 at the Lexington Opera House.

Early in "Motown The Musical," an ambitious young Berry Gordy is pitching a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles record to a white radio station disc-jockey.

"What makes you think white people will buy your records?" asks the DJ, who seconds later is grooving to the group's first big hit, "Shop Around."

Maybe the greatest testament to the achievement of Gordy's music was right there in the Lexington Opera House Friday for the opening night of a weekend engagement of the national tour of "Motown The Musical." It was an almost-sold out crowd with plenty of white people who paid well over what a 45 rpm record cost in 1960 to hear songs many knew by heart. (The woman sitting next to me had her Motown songbook down cold.)

Throughout the show, Gordy says he doesn't want to just make music for black people, he wants to make music for all people. The reception for this show — which received four Tony Award nominations in 2013 — as well as hundreds of hit records and other broadly successful enterprises that warranted it, say mission accomplished.

"Motown" is what is known in musical theater parlance as a jukebox musical, a show made up of familiar songs from a particular group or genre, loosely held together by a story those songs are put in the service of telling. But "Motown" is a bit more substantive than, say, the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia" or the 1980s hit parade "Rock of Ages."

Arielle Crosby (1).jpg
Kentucky State University graduate Arielle Crosby plays Martha Reeves and several other roles in "Motown The Musical." Photo provided

Certainly, like those shows, there is a lot of fun to be had hearing — and singing along to — Motown gems such as "Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Stop in the Name of Love" and "Dancing in the Streets" — led in this particular production by Kentucky State University graduate Arielle Crosby as Motown star Martha Reeves. There are even amusing moments like Gordy and Robinson making a friendly wager as to whether The Supremes' first hit, "My Guy," can be succeeded by The Temptations making the Robinson-penned "My Girl" a No. 1 song.

But "Motown The Musical" also delivers a slice of musical and American history that bears repeating.

The show takes us back to a time when the DJ's question wasn't so ludicrous. In the late 1950s and early '60s, the country was divided by race and other factors. The rise of Motown is juxtaposed, as it was in reality, to the Civil Rights movement it emerged in. In a particularly harrowing sequence, a Motown revue tour winds south with signs that say things like "whites only" and "KKK country" appearing on video screens behind The Supremes, merrily singing "Please, Mr. Postman," until shots ring out.

In the wake of events like Beyonce giving a performance for the ages last weekend at the Coachella Festival and advances including the first black president in United States history, those days can seem distant. But with fresh events like white nationalist rallies such as the one last summer in Charlottesville, Va., and issues such as the fraught relationship between law enforcement and black communities regularly making headlines, these scenes feel sadly relevant today.

Trenyce as Diana Ross and Kenneth Mosley as Berry Gordy in "Motown The Musical." Michael Pool

The musical also addressed the broader story of Motown, at times the most profitable black-owned business in the United States, and Gordy, the company's founder and longtime owner. It's a poignant tale of a visionary but flawed leader, relaying enough of the latter that you have to keep reminding yourself Gordy wrote the book and is a producer of this show. So it is one side of the story, and definitely not the most objective side. But you do have to give the man, now 88, credit for acknowledging some of his failings in the midst of his trailblazing success.

Kenneth Mosley delivers an entertaining and emotional performance as Gordy, the showstopper being "Can I Close the Door on Love," one of the songs Gordy wrote specifically for this show.

For most of the show Mosley plays opposite former "American Idol" competitor Trenyce as Diana Ross, effectively morphing from the reluctant Supremes frontwoman to confident solo artist in the show's two-and-three-quarter hours, with highlights including leading the audience in a hand-holding sing-along of "Reach Out and Touch." Matt Manuel gives a striking Marvin Gaye portrayal, relaying his caged spirit and great moments like the falsetto runs in "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." His scene with Mosley, pleading to be allowed to release the now-iconic "What's Going On?" album, is one of the show's most riveting and telling scenes.

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Devin Holloway has one of the first showstoppers as Jackie Wilson with dance moves that make you forget Michael Jackson is also part of this label. That is, until Jackson and The Jackson 5 show up with Louisville's Chase Phillips claiming the lead. His "I Want You Back" is a star turn very much in the spirit of Jackson's legendary performances. And K-State's aforementioned Crosby acquits herself beautifully as Reeves and several other characters. We have Kentuckians to watch in this show.

And it is a show to watch, whether you go for the hits or the history. You'll find a lot of both.

If you go

"Motown The Musical"

What: National touring production of the Broadway musical.

When: 8 p.m. April 28, 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 29

Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

Tickets: $30-$120