“I Want You Back!” "Motown: The Musical" delivers at the Hippodrome.

By Kay Wicker

Julius Thomas III as Berry Gordy (center right) & Cast during the first national tour. (C) Joan Marcus, 2015.
Julius Thomas III as Berry Gordy (center right) & Cast during the first national tour. (C) Joan Marcus, 2015.

Everybody has a song or two that comes to mind when they hear “Motown.” Maybe it’s “My Girl,”—or “My Guy,” for that matter. Or maybe it’s “You’re all I need.” Whatever your classic pop jam may be, when you hear the title, “Motown: The Musical,” you know exactly how this production should sound. That’s what makes this jukebox musical, which is currently running at the Hippodrome, so special. When the play debuted, it was accused of skimping on story while still delivering some serious tunes. Three years after its original run, the story may still seem like a mere background dancer, but it doesn’t matter. “Motown: The Musical” is about the music.

The hurried plot centers on the life and times of Motown’s founder, music mogul Berry Gordy, played by Chester Gregory. The pop star-packed character list features Diana Ross, played by Allison Semmes, Marvin Gaye, played by Jarran Muse, a young Michael Jackson, played by J. J. Batteast, and—most notably—Smoky Robinson, who is played by an excellent Jesse Nager. The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops and even a hilarious Rick James all make an appearance in the ensemble.

In this cast, Nager, shines from the very beginning when Berry Gordy discovers him on the street. He’s endearing in the way he brings out Gordy’s human side, not to mention the man can blow—like the real Robinson. In fact, everyone, all 26 members, were able to resurrect their characters impressively. Batteast nails his nearly impossible task of living up to the King of Pop. The character of Diana Ross, ironically, is stronger on stage once she parts with the fictional Supremes.

The musical turns into a sing-a-long before intermission and continues that way, fully encouraged by the cast—who would extend their microphones concert-style. A quick survey of the audience and you’d find more than half had totally time hopped, cheering loudly for their Motown heroes and belting out the lyrics to their personal soundtracks.

What’s clear by the play’s end is that real life Berry Gordy, who had a hand in writing the show, was a boy with a dream who became a man that granted the dreams of others. So, after reliving his (their) greatest hits, all the drama—for what it’s worth—is forgiven. Which is true of any major pop star, isn’t it?

“Motown: The Musical,” currently at the Hippodrome, runs through March 13. 

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