A review of the hit-filled “Motown: the Musical,” which tells the story of Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown, and the many stars who recorded on the label. It’s at the Paramount Theatre through June 12.

Share story

Before you can say “Motown,” the Temptations are battling the Four Tops in an epic sing-off.

From the jump, the crowd-pleasing hit parade “Motown: the Musical” at the Paramount Theatre pours on turbocharged hits from one of the most successful, influential recording catalogs in pop music history.

If you love the Motown sound (and to know it is to love it), this touring edition of the long-running Broadway show, directed with lightning flash and flair by Charles Randolph-Wright, won’t disappoint.


‘Motown: the Musical’

Through June 12 at Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; tickets from $30 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).

Backed by a driving pit band playing those original Funk Brothers hooks, a tireless cast cannily imitates a slew of Motor City stars, from early headliners like the Temps, the Tops and the Supremes, to second-generation meteors Michael Jackson and Rick James. (Yes, “Super Freak” is heard.)

Over 50 tunes (and snippets of tunes) are housed in an airbrushed, hackneyed history of Motown that pales next to the ecstatic force of the music, and the embellishments of Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams’ invigorated choreography, Esosa’s glitz-tastic costumes and Natasha Katz’s snazzy lighting.

Written by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and based on his memoir, “To Be Loved,” the show sketches how a Detroit factory worker and striving songwriter turned an $800 family loan into a recording empire, and brilliantly mainstreamed black music for the multiracial masses of “young America.”

There’s a cloying strain of bitterness in Gordy’s recollections. (For other sides of the story, see the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” or read Nelson George’s “Where Did Our Love Go?” and Supremes singer Mary Wilson’s tell-all, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme.”)

In a framing device, colleagues press Gordy to attend the televised 25th anniversary gala for Motown. Feeling underappreciated by the stars he’d discovered, nurtured, then lost to other labels, Gordy is reluctant to go.

Flashback to how his evolving indie label groomed and molded so many stars. As the saga unfolds, many artists blaze by with a song or two. But there are running gags about Berry’s genius compatriot William “Smokey” Robinson (a shrewd guy who comes off clownish here), snapshots of the gifted and rebellious Marvin Gaye, and a good deal more of Diana Ross.

A teenage flirt and diva-in-the-making, Ross quickly wins top billing (with the Supremes, and solo) and also Gordy’s affections — until work pressures and ego friction end their affair. (No mention is made of their daughter.)

Much more so than the superior book for the jukebox “Jersey Boys” musical, the “Motown” dialogue is littered with trite, clunky lines: “That little Stevie is a wonder!” “I’ll make her [Ross] the biggest star in the world!” But as whirlwind news images whisk us through the turbulent 1960s, Motown’s success is wisely placed in a cultural-political context of emerging black pride and civil-rights activism. (Along with knocking down industry racial barriers, Gordy recorded the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches.)

Yet it’s the soulful, snappy, slickly staged music numbers that sell the show. Alongside note-for-note classics like “My Girl” and “Baby Love,” you’ll hear bonus early hits and some serviceable new tunes by Gordy and Michael Lovesmith.

The large ensemble sizzles, with Chester Gregory as Gordy (with a killer tenor voice), Allison Semmes as a saucy ringer for Ross (vocally and otherwise), Jarran Muse as a magnetic Gaye, and (on opening night) young J.J. Batteast tearing it up as little Stevie Wonder.