March 16 2016 12:54 AM

‘Motown the Musical’ delivers the classics with modern polish

The first time I heard most of the songs that were featured in "Motown the Musical," was through a tiny plastic earpiece attached to a small, Japanese transistor radio tuned to a local '60s radio station. If the performances of the same tunes heard last night at the Wharton Center were broad- cast through that same radio, it would surely have exploded. The ear plug might have melted.

"Motown the Musical" is a monumental trip back to the origins of Berry Gordy's "Hitsville U.S.A.," up through the iconic, televised 25th Motown anniversary show. From the beginning in the Detroit studio that produced familiar early hits like, "My Guy" and "My Mama Done Told Me," to classics like "What's Goin' On" and "Brick House," "Motown the Musical" delightfully pummels the audience with non-stop, heartstopping, chart toppers. Fifty-six songs in two acts — with two more originals written for the play — to be exact.

Utilizing five principals, nine "swing" performers and an ensemble of 21 for the lengthy list of tunes wasn't overkill. Instead, the musical was an endlessly entertaining extravaganza of exceptional music and dance that was never earthly. Especially when vocalists could have blown out candles in the distant balcony with ease — sometimes while spinning and gesturing in classic ‘60s vocal group moves. The entire cast demonstrated lung capacity, power and range. I was just glad they kept their almost-high-enough-for-only-dogs notes in a range we humans could still appreciate.

The play, written by Berry Gordy, Kevin McCollum and Doug Morris (based on Gordy's book, "To Be Loved"), gives real insights into how Gordy's label was a champion of black music and a powerful influence on American culture. Creative, often complex and frequently brightly illuminated sets sometimes reflected historical images of Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam Nam War and the Kennedy assassination. Chester Gregory's potent portrayal of Gordy did not always reveal an appealing portrait of the domineering genius, and that is admirable. The Broadway play is full of emotion.

Not being especially authentic in terms of exactly reproducing familiar songs like "My Girl" or trying to perfectly duplicate the appearance of stars like Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross or Mary Wells did not matter. The changes added vocal embellishments and magnificent wails. But when superstars like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Rick James and an astounding young Michael Jackson were so well imitated, the results were eerily accurate.

My only moment of distress came after the show when I looked for my DeLoreon and realized I hadn't driven one. It seemed only logical I must have arrived to the show in a time machine.


“Motown the Musical”

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16 and Thursday, March 17; 8 p.m. Friday, March 18; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 20 Tickets start at $38 Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com

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