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Dance to the Beat of Motown the Musical

Written By: Avra Kouffman

Photography Provided By: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Joan Marcus

The songs, the singers, the styles! All of these combine to make Motown a beloved chapter in American musical history. Motown the Musical, produced by record label founder Berry Gordy Jr. celebrates the label’s impact on musical culture while setting Gordy’s personal story against the politics of the era.

Berry, who shaped the script, gives time to the influence of his parents and siblings but focuses on his musical family, the entertainers who brought Motown to national prominence in the 1960s. And what a family! The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, The Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye are just a few of the legendary acts Berry helped take to stardom. While the show references ‘family squabbles’ that plagued the label and revisits Berry’s romance with singer Diana Ross, it’s the music that matters most. Decades after Motown’s heyday, the songs filled the Segerstrom with fans eager to relive the era’s hits.

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Motown the Musical showcases scores of classic tunes, some written by Berry himself. I didn’t know that before he was a record mogul, Berry was a songwriter. Berry wrote or co-wrote Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite, ” The Jackson Five’s “ABC” and “I’ll Be There, ” as well as the song that got the OC audience clapping along, “Money (That’s What I Want).” He co-wrote the Miracles’ hit “Shop Around” with musical genius Smokey Robinson and the pair kept up a friendship and working relationship as label-mates for decades. More hits for Motown? The list goes on and on.

While it’s always entertaining to see portrayals of stars like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, some of the night’s most spectacular voices came from cameo performances. Patrice Covington portrays Martha Reeves of the Vandellas. Covington has a vibrant, blade-like quality to her voice. Rockabilly idol Wanda Jackson has that same trill: It’s a sound that pierces through you, taking only a moment to make an indelible impression. Martina Sykes also brought down the house as ‘Queen of Motown’ Mary Wells, holding her powerful notes forever and a day. But the most fun was Allison Semmes (as Diana Ross) pulling volunteers out of seats for mini-solos and asking the audience to join hands and sing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” The audience participation definitely added to a show’s appeal!

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Although Motown is most associated with its early hits, the play becomes more interesting when it moves past the mid-60s. Bright psychedelic-era visuals and politically-charged songs from Marvin Gaye and friends keep things moving. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War are referenced. The audience is shown Berry and his artists trying to adapt to changing times and see later-era Motown acts like Rick James singing “Super Freak” and other hits.

Motown music is undeniable and a full evening of it uplifted the audience, “What a show! Now that was fun!” exclaimed one audience member nearby. As people milled out, they smiled at each other, held open doors and just seem pleased with life. They left in smiles, and I’m sure a lot of Motown tunes were hummed on the way home.

Motown the Musical will run through June 28, 2015, at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts
600 Town Center Dr
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
714.223.2787 | www.scfta.org

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