TAMPA — The Supremes are supreme. The Marvelettes deliver with Please Mr. Postman. The machine that is the record industry, and was most certainly Motown, opens full throttle as the careers of the Temptations and the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and dozens of other careers blossom and are soon set upon by record labels as cutthroat as the Daytona 500.
Motown: The Musical, running at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, is an extravaganza of nostalgic hits, some 50 of them over two and a half hours, wrapped loosely around the persona and career of producer Berry Gordy, who more or less built that engine. This show's objective is as straightforward as the title, its discovery-to-stardom pieces moving reliably along a conveyor belt.
That formula works.
Gordy's own rise, from high school dropout to featherweight boxer and from struggling songwriter to musical powerhouse, is nearly as remarkable as the "Motown Sound" he produced, which fused gospel with rhythm and blues. Chester Gregory as Gordy handles the musical's meatiest role with assurance, grinding out a conflicted portrait of a visionary and workaholic who drew excellence out of artists the way a hummingbird extracts nectar. This vision and its attendant profits consume him, to the exclusion of political engagement in the 1960s and a romance with Diana Ross, his biggest discovery.
Allison Semmes radiates as Ross, covering insecurities and ambition with that honeyed speaking voice and an exquisite vocal control. After defining career moves with the Supremes and immediate stardom as a solo performer, she ventures into the audience a couple of times to pull out brave customers for "duets."
This gimmick created a couple of genuinely moving moments, reflecting the same calculus that drives this musical. Gordy himself wrote the book based on his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved. Script consultants David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan weaved the plot around new discoveries, including Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and a young Michael Jackson (Raymond Davis Jr.). All delivered crisp lyrics, and many approached the stars they were playing. There were many such strong performances, but the politically engaged, passionately independent Marvin Gaye played by Jarran Muse (with an a cappella rendition of Mercy, Mercy Me) ranked among the best.
The story handles some aspects of its purported social engagement more completely than others. Undisguised racial animosities against black musicians taking over the mainstream charts run strong. A video montage references major figures and events including Vietnam, the moon landing and activist Angela Davis.
We know how the story plays out. Gordy and Motown Records can fend off competitors for a while but not indefinitely. There's never enough time to know most of the players well; the story's authors have chosen sketches and volume over character development.
But the music is wonderful, and that's really what Motown is about.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.