Going Back in Time with 'Motown: The Musical'
I may have been the youngest person there. Except for Michael Jackson. And boy, can he move his feet!
Maybe I should back up a bit: for the first time in my life, I went to a live show. “Motown: The Musical” came to Toronto and was playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre. I went to what was the second show of the engagement, the first matinée.
Several years ago, someone recommended I see “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” It was after watching that documentary when I realized my love for Motown music, especially the stuff from the 1960s. To provide some perspective, that’s about 15 years before I was born.
The show itself is the story of the Motown record label, and by extension that of founder Berry Gordy. An early scene features Berry as a young boy and the story carries us through the powerhouse years when Motown was massive until it was sold in 1988.
And along the way, we get the hits–and the struggles that come with them.
There’s a lot to be happy about in this show but one highlight is Allison Semmes who plays Diana Ross. She’s a beautiful lady with a great voice. We saw a lot of her and she didn’t disappoint as the show moved on. Don’t miss “Reach Out and Touch.” The broadcaster in me is coming out here, but one of the more unique ways that Allison shone in that number during the show I saw was her ad-libbing skills. Yes, ad-libbing.
Three of the younger characters in the performance were played Nathaniel Cullors, and he’s great as Michael Jackson. His dancing and movement are incredible; as mentioned above, focus on his feet for the extra magic. He sings well too, and can definitely hit the right note. The signature piece for him in this show is the “I Want You Back”/“ABC”/“The Love You Save” Jackson 5 montage.
If you’re young like me, you should know the first scene is on set of the “Motown 25” TV special. While it’s not critical and is inferred, I wish that fact was given more prominence as it adds some context to that initial scene. I think the assumption is the target audience for the musical watched the TV special in 1983.
The show really took off for me with Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite,” sung by Rashad Naylor.
The choreography during “My Girl” was perfectly in sync. From everything I’ve seen, I would’ve sworn I was watching the Temptations in 1964. I felt the same way when the Jackson 5 came on stage.
It was nice to hear Josh Tower as Berry Gordy in “You’re All I Need to Get By” and later “Can I Close the Door.” There aren’t many solo or duet performances for this character during the show but Josh made those two numbers stand out for me.
I had a thought during the show about costume changes. There are at least a couple of times when a costume is changed within 20 seconds during a song! I don’t know if that’s normal in theatre today but wow, it’s amazing.
Hearing the Gladys Knight and the Pips version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was great! Traditionally, Marvin Gaye’s is the go-to version so it was nice to hear the other one featured as well.
Ed Sullivan makes a short appearance and Doug Storm has Ed’s mannerisms down pat. I noticed the same thing with some other characters as well. Small details like the having the same hand or arm movement we’ve seen for years on the real person make a part more believable.
The Familiar and Unfamiliar
For me, the unfamiliar was just being at the theatre seeing the musical. Since it’s something new for me, I was hesitant about even buying a ticket.
But the familiar was the music. The classic songs of Motown are all part of the show. Mix in good performances from the entire cast and you’ve got an introduction to live theatre for someone who’s a fan of the Motown sound.
I make no claims at being a bonafide theatre reviewer but since you got this far… 4 out of 5 stars for “Motown: The Musical.”