Do you love Motown? The Bushnell becomes Hitsville, U.S.A. as the birth of Motown music comes to life on the Mortensen Hall stage in Hartford for “Motown The Musical.”
Audience members could hardly contain themselves, many of them singing along, as hits by Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Jackson Five, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and other Motown legends filled the room. There was an energy this show evoked from the patrons unlike most musicals where people sit and watch in silence.
An audience participation element broke the barrier of performers and public, connecting everyone from when Allison Semmes as Diana Ross roams the aisles, speaking to the audience and calling a random audience member up to sing with her, to when she asks everyone to join hands with the person next to them and waive them in the air to the music. There was even a Hartford reference thrown in.
This production not only tapped into nostalgia for Motown with popping, lively musical numbers, but it also presented a piece of history about a record label that introduced a new genre of music to the world while breaking through racial divides as Berry Gordy built it from the ground up, starting off with little money and touting his Detroit roots. We follow the rise of his music empire and the struggles it took to get there, as well as the upsets of losing artists he turned into superstars as they sought career advancement and his romance with Diana Ross.
Chester Gregory poured emotional and character depth into Gordy with impressive vigor, range and style in his standout vocals.
Semmes was charming, alluring and comical and projected sweet, powerhouse vocals as big-eyed, big-haired (hair toss, hair toss), graceful diva Diana Ross. Her sparkling gowns and swift costume changes were stunning. Her Diana was even extraordinary singing a waltz!
She and the other actors playing the Motown legends had the difficult feat of not only singing and dancing well, but also doing impressions of historical figures in the music industry. They rose to the challenge, picking up the mannerisms and personalities of those characters. Jarran Muse was chill yet driven as romance icon Marvin Gaye, singing strongly and suave as silk. Jesse Nager was spunky and talented as Smokey Robinson, the writer of many well known songs.
Leon Outlaw Jr. was young Michael Jackson incarnate, nailing the moves and piercing high notes that were just some of the elements Michael was known for. In addition to portraying the youngest member of the Jackson 5 with pizzaz, he also played Young Berry Gordy/Stevie Wonder.
Understudy Darius Crenshaw was uncanny as the adult Stevie Wonder, closing the show with the ultimate funk vibe.
“Motown The Musical” is an ensemble-heavy show that only has five principal characters. The ensemble impressively rotates between Motown icons, each recognizable and distinct. The Temptations/Four Top sing-off format was captivating off the get-go.
The dancing added texture and movement to the music and the set also had it’s own form of choreography as peaces smoothly rolled onto set hitting precise marks and timing. Colorful lighting ornamented beautiful set design and made it pop.
If you like any of these Motown hits, you’ll probably enjoy the musical: “ABC”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Baby Love,” “Brick House,” “Do You Love Me,” “Give It to Me, Baby,” “I Heard It Through the Grapvine, “Money (That’s What I Want),” “My Girl,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Stop in the Name of Love, “Super Freak,” “War” are just several of the Motown favorites in this production.
I didn’t like it, but I loved it!
“Motown The Musical” runs through March 27 at The Bushnell. Visit bushnell.org for information on the production and purchasing tickets.