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First Nighter: Motown: The Musical Gives the Customers What They Came For

04/15/2013 08:39 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013

During the second act of Motown: The Musical, Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae), having just finished her first performance as a soloist, remarks to manager-boyfriend Berry Gordy Jr. (Brandon Victor Dixon) that she hopes the audience got its money's worth. He replies, "They did."

He can say that again. There's no question that patrons at the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre -- certainly longtime "Motown sound" lovers -- are getting their money's worth. That's because too much about the production is visually and aurally pluperfect to raise much doubt. Okay, maybe a little doubt -- and what there is will be discussed farther down.

For the moment, however, there's a heap of praise to pass around, starting, of course, with the Motown music and moving on to the slick Charles Randolph-Wright direction and rousing Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams choreography, the fluid David Korins sets, augmented by Daniel Brodie's classy video design, and Esosa's flashy costumes.

Add to those Natasha Katz's explosive lighting, Peter Hylenski's meticulous sound, Charles G. LaPointe's fabbo hair and wigs and a cast of ebullient singers and dancers -- many of whom play multiple roles (as, for instance, impersonating at various moments the Four Tops, the Commodores, the Contours, the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, Gladys Knight and the Pips).

Speaking of performances: Dixon's as the founder of Motown Records is outstanding. The actor's got passion, determination and a strong voice to project Gordy's beliefs, especially when they're expressed in song. Needless to say, they wouldn't have been sung in real life, but they're chanted here in new anthems to which Gordy has set words on Michael Lovesmith's music.

In the other pivotal turn, there's LeKae as Diana, known to close childhood friends like Mary Wilson (Ariana DeBose) as Diane. Motown fans -- particularly partisans of The Supremes -- will wonder where the producers and casting mavens found someone with what up to now has been the singular Ross smile and the singular Ross LP-thin body. Plus, LeKae's got the pipes and acting chops with which to back up her convincing recreation.

There are any number of equally startling turns -- Charl Brown as a devoted Smokey Robinson, Bryan Terrell Clark as an increasingly activist Marvin Gaye, Eric LaJuan Summers as a dynamic Jackie Wilson, N'Kenge as an electric Mary Wells, Ryan Shaw as the adult Stevie Wonder. A special shoutout to Raymond Luke Jr., who plays the young Berry Gordy, the young Stevie Wonder and (wow!) the young Michael Jackson. (Jibreel Mawry alternates in the role.)

There's no way to watch Motown: The Musical without marveling at the bushels of catalog items that hit the '60s-'70s-'80s charts -- 50-plus of them in this line-up by staff writers like Lamont Dozier (Julius Thomas III here), Edward Holland (Daniel J. Watts) and Brian Holland (Summers). These seeming effortlessly, irresistibly catchy numbers brought an easily identifiable lilting and fervent new sound to the national and international airwaves.

As these Top 10 releases, all originally recorded by the company's incomparable house band, roll by, the changes in them following the '60s social unrest -- particularly the protest numbers like "War," "What's Going On" and "Love Child" -- are reminders of the undeniable cultural force Motown has been.

So there are sufficient elements in the jukebox tuner to please any Motown advocate, and no one will argue the show hasn't been aimed towards that contingent. But what of the Gordy libretto? Truth to tell, it's somewhat unsatisfying as adapted by Gordy -- working with consultants David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan -- from his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown.

Motown: The Musical is framed by NBC's 1983 25th birthday celebration, which brought together many, of not all, of the labels' acts. There's one significant participant missing at the festivities, and it isn't Tammi Terrell, who goes unmentioned throughout the hyperkinetic proceedings. It's Gordy himself. He's initially revealed at home, nursing hurt feelings about having been abandoned for other labels by many of the discoveries who've reunited for the broadcast.

While longtime associate and the variety-hour's producer Suzanne de Passe (Andrea Dora) beseeches him to forgive and forget, he thinks back to his childhood dream of being someone. Then he reviews chronologically the history of the successful company he established and the recording artists that became an indispensable part of it.

As the reverie unfolds, Motown: The Musical is certainly Gordy's homage to the sound he created and his roster of soloists and groups. But mostly it's an exercise in honoring himself. including his developing and unraveling relationship with Ross. Perhaps for the sake of balance, he remembers a bedroom encounter when he was unable to perform, and she reassures him.

He recalls other developments along the way for which he notes no wrong-doing on his part, such as Mary Wells's departure (she was the first of his stable to defect) and his eventual decision to move his headquarters from Detroit to Hollywood. He revisits obstacles faced like resistance from white music purveyors who labeled his product "race music" and therefore unplayable on pop stations. Indeed, the white characters in Motown: The Musical come across as stereotypes, but, oddly enough, so do some of the black characters.

Perhaps the problem is that too many of the book scenes are sketchy, cartoon-ish, diluted versions of what must have really occurred. Complicating matters is the obvious indication that to accommodate these scenes just about every one of the Motown memorable chart-toppers included has been trimmed. Putting aside the fact that for this reviewer the absence of The Supremes's "Baby Love" with its heart-stopping mid-way modulation is a major disappointment, Motown die-hards are likely to find the abbreviations frustrating.

At one point in Gordy's recollections, he fixes on the first Motortown Revue sent around the country and the potential trouble it encountered in the South when white and black fans mingled. While it's unfolding, an observer can't be blamed for thinking that maybe Motown: The Musical would have been best off not as part reality-show Dreamgirls but as a straight-out Motortown Revue 2013, which it almost is anyway.

A closing word on Emilio Sosa's costumes: He's done his research, but it doesn't look as if he's gone about reconstructing the vast Motown wardrobe. As an actual witness, I can report that the gossamer gowns worn by Diana Rose, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard at their 1965 Copacabana opening were different from what LeKae, DeBose and and Dionne Figgis as Florence Ballard gyrate in for the Motown: The Musical reprise. Needless to say, this isn't criticism. It's a devoted fan's cherished memory.