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Motown The Musical Struggles To Tell A Story Between Songs


The good news about “Motown the Musical” is that it draws extensively on the Motown Records songbook, including some of the catchiest, most danceable R 'n' B tunes ever recorded. Like this number from the show, recreating the famous 1964 hit by Martha and the Vandellas.

Combine a landmark song like that with stylish dancers in a Broadway-style production, and you’re off to a strong start.

But very often in this show, you only get part an iconic song, rather than the whole thing. For instance this number opens with a hit by The Temptations, then  – without missing a beat – it abruptly pivots into a different hit by The Four Tops.

“Motown the Musical” packs in portions of a whopping 66 songs – three times as many as you’ll find in the average musical.

Along the way, the entire career of the Jackson Five becomes a 2.5 minute medley, and the same happens to other artists as well. It’s kind of like tasting a spoonful of every dish on a long menu, or sitting by the tracks and watching a passing train with 60 cars rumble by, with each car visible for maybe 40 seconds.

In between songs, this show relates the rise and fall of Motown founder Berry Gordy. This trailblazing black entrepreneur built his start-up into an international powerhouse, only to see the stars he’d nurtured leave for other labels. The show also depicts Gordy’s celebrated romance with singer Diana Ross of The Supremes. But these plot intervals are full of clichés, and feel more like a synopsis than a heartfelt saga.

But even when this show stalls out in the story department, it generates fresh momentum each time a song begins. The 1960s hairdos that the cast in this musical sport on stage may look dated, but the classic Motown melodies they sing possess a timeless appeal – the songs are this show’s primary asset.

Broadway Sacramento presents “Motown the Musical” at the Sacramento Community Center Theatre through May 29.  

 theatre review

Jeff Hudson

Contributing Arts Reporter and Theatre Critic

Jeff Hudson has been contributing arts-related stories to Capital Public Radio since 1995, with an emphasis on theater and classical music. He attends over 100 performances annually, ranging from modern musicals to medieval masses.   Read Full Bio