For most of his 86 years, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. has been an American dreamer. Born into a large Detroit family of modest means, Gordy tried boxing, served his country in Korea and worked the line at the Lincoln-Mercury plant before finding his entrepreneurial creative destiny in music.
The mogul revisits his success story in "Motown the Musical," which plays the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami through Sunday, Feb. 7, before moving to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach Feb. 9-14.
Gordy literally wrote the book for this 2013 autobiographical jukebox musical, basing it on his 1994 memoir, "To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown." He bookends the show with scenes from the 1983 Motown 25th anniversary special, otherwise telling his version of the Motown story chronologically. Gordy's writing is, by turns, funny, clichéd, honest, corny, romantic and aphoristic.
What makes "Motown the Musical" a hugely entertaining show, however, isn't the script. It's that spectacular Motown catalog, the work of so many great composers and lyricists, including Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Edward Holland Jr., Stevie Wonder and, yes, Gordy himself.
And those artists! Some of the soulful pop superstars whose hits helped Motown become the country's largest black-owned business at one point are still here and making music. Though purists would argue that the originals are inimitable, it's still a thrill to hear such fine facsimiles singing smashes from the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Mary Wells, the Commodores, Martha Reeves, Diana Ross, Robinson (and the Miracles), Wonder, Gaye — the list goes on and on.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright with intricate synchronized choreography from Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, the show packs all or parts of 59 songs into its nearly three-hour running time. Yet the musical seldom feels overstuffed, moving from scene to scene and hit to hit with almost cinematic swiftness, an effect enhanced by David Korins' sets, Natasha Katz's lighting and Daniel Brodie's projection designs.
Key leads who were in "Motown the Musical" when it played the Broward Center last season are still with the show, still driving the audience crazy.
Lithe, petite Allison Semmes channels Diana Ross in speech and song, reminding us just where Beyoncé got so much of her diva style and attitude. Jesse Nager pitches his speaking voice high and sometimes seems more like comic relief than a genius singer-songwriter as Smokey Robinson. Leon Outlaw Jr. earns the roars he gets during the Jackson Five numbers, demonstrating just how adored the young Michael Jackson was. And Jarran Muse — sexy, confrontational, charismatic — honors the depth of Gaye's talent and the late singer's sociopolitical evolution when he sings "What's Going On" and "Mercy, Mercy Me."
One major cast change since the show's last stop here enhances the show immeasurably. Chester Gregory, who gave a blow-the-roof-off performance as singer Jackie Wilson in "The Eve of Jackie" at the Arsht Center in October, is now starring as Gordy. That's a nice full-circle touch, since two of Gordy's earliest hits were "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops," recorded by Wilson.
But more significantly, Gregory has the pipes to turn "Can I Close the Door," a climactic solo number written especially for the show, into a huge musical moment, one that earns its place in the nostalgic cavalcade that is "Motown the Musical."
"Motown the Musical" will appear through Feb. 7 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. It will then appear Feb. 9-14 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday in Miami; 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday in West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $29-$150 at the Arsht, $27-$99 at the Kravis. To order for the Arsht, call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org. For the Kravis, call 561-832-7469 or go to Kravis.org