Arts & Culture

Review: 'Motown: The Musical ' a smooth slide through Motown history

Musical brings Berry Gordy's trajectory to Hancher stage

Joan Marcus

Kai Calhoun (center) brings down the house as Michael Jackson, star of the Jackson 5, in “Motown: The Musical,” onstage through Sunday at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.
Joan Marcus Kai Calhoun (center) brings down the house as Michael Jackson, star of the Jackson 5, in “Motown: The Musical,” onstage through Sunday at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY — By “Dancing in the Street,” fans were dancing in their seats during Friday’s opening performance of “Motown: The Musical,” on stage through Sunday at Hancher Auditorium.

This musical montage, nominated for four Tony Awards in 2013, wraps snippets of 58 songs through Motown’s evolutionary revolution.

It’s based on Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown,” but it’s also a snapshot in time, showing the struggles of blacks in America during the civil rights unrest of ’60s and ’70s.

It was a time when “white” radio stations were reluctant to play any kind of music by black artists, let alone a new sound Gordy was cultivating in his native Detroit.

When a white radio DJ tells him, “We don’t play race music,” he replies, “My audience is all around the world.” DJ: “What makes you think white people will buy your music?” Gordy: “It’s what’s in the groove that counts.”

That groove spins through more than two hours of hits from the artists he molded into stars: love interest Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, and the Contours.

The showstopper, however, is seventh-grader Kai Calhoun in his star turn as newcomer Michael Jackson, fronting the Jackson 5. Calhoun has the moves, attitudes, voice and personality down pat, and his every strut and pose drew squeals of delight and bursts of applause from Friday’s audience. Remember his name; we’ll be hearing more from this dynamo as his career grows.

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Other actors who stand out in the way they capture and covey the stars include Kenneth Mosley as Berry Gordy, full of fire, determination and despair; Trenyce as soft-spoken Diana Ross, who fills every stage with love and luminosity; Justin Reynolds as Gordy’s confidante and conscience, Smokey Robinson; and Matt Manuel as Marvin Gaye, who morphs from glib crooner to musical activist.

The show is a spectacle to behold, in sight and sound. Costumes dripping in sparkles and sheen capture the glamour that Gordy brought to the industry.

Especially captivating is the evolution of Diana Ross’ style, from high school senior sporting day dresses to the fitted Bob Mackie sequin swirls and flowing capes and boas that remain her signature look, flowing in the wind during her concert last July at the McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids.

And the dance. So much dance. Crisp, clean lines, smooth moves, slides and glides, bumps and grinds from the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Commodores were sizzling in their day and continue to influence boy bands and others who are making their way down a path Gordy forged.

Obviously, the music can stand alone on a bare stage with concert lighting, but in this show, the scenery takes on a life of its own.

Real-life projections provide historical context for the climate of the day, from the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to the race riots, segregation signs through the haunting images of Vietnam during the public outcry of “War” and Marvin Gaye’s cautionary plea in “What’s Going On.”

Every song and song styling embraces the spirit of the performers and their emotional journey under Gordy’s guidance — a hold that pushed them away one by one, until he had few still at his side.

The show begins in Pasadena as the stars are reuniting to celebrate Motown Records’ 25th anniversary. Feeling betrayed, Gordy is refusing to attend. Then the action moves into flashback through his childhood, his family and his influences in Detroit, to the way he builds his empire, hastens its demise, crafts its reinvention, and ultimately, comes back to the gala celebration of his legacy.

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It’s a moving tribute to pluck, determination, artistry and the rise and fall of a flawed system, society and humanity — buoyed by a beat that goes on and on.

If you go

• What: “Motown: The Musical”

• Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

• When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. today and, 1 p.m. Sunday; American Sign Language interpreter Sunday

• Tickets: $50 to $90; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or hancher.uiowa.edu

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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