Broadway blockbusters “Mamma Mia,” and “Jersey Boys,” tread on traditional “moon-June-spoon” musicals which ruled Broadway’s Golden Age. “Motown the Musical,” a theatre-light jukebox tuner continued the doo-wop beat on the Great White Way.
Currently on stage in Toronto, this contemporary pop (though now nostalgic) show is adapted from Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown” (he also wrote the book for the musical). It tracks Gordy’s founding and running of the Detroit-based Motown record label, highlighting his personal and professional relationships with top line artists Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Kaye and Michael Jackson, among others. They propelled the label to r & b, and rock ‘n roll prominence. The musical premiered on Broadway in April 2013, receiving four Tony Award nominations.
Like any good jukebox musical, the hits (over fifty) just keep on coming with catchy classics, tasty harmonies and cool grooves (a description heard again with the revived interest in vinyl recordings).
A re-creation of the 1983 televised quarter century anniversary Motown reunion bookends the musical chronicle. Gordy doesn’t attend the event; downbeat memories of too many singers he made famous leaving him, various lawsuits and bad blood are emotionally troubling.
Flashbacks whisk the audience back to Gordy’s childhood, and the landmark boxing match between his idol Joe Louis and Max Schmeling (he had ambitions of a pugilistic career). Then, skipping forward to the 1950s, Gordy borrows money from his family to get into the record business. He’s already written and sold a couple of songs to Jackie Wilson, but only by owning publishing rights and producing records can real money be made.
Time-hopping through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, various acts burst into stardom amid tragic milestone moments of turbulence. The hit parade reels on seemingly forever in a dramatically slapdash but musically vibrant trip back to the glory days of Detroit, where the vinyl pouring out of an unassuming two-story house took the world by storm, all but paving the city’s streets with gold records.
The indelible styles of the original singers/groups are skillfully recreated by a spirited cast of gifted singers mimicking this crowded collection of pop-chart classlcs. Gordy’s recollections of the era and the artists he discovered form the foundation for a musical that is, if nothing else, a memory jolt for baby boomers. While the narrative is subservient to the songs, fans will relish a joyous trip to past tuneful memories. For
yours truly, though the songs were not to my taste, I took enjoyment in the show’s theatricality.
“Motown the Musical” is rock ‘n rolling at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre through November 1st.
Meanwhile, down the street at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, “Kinky Boots” continues to kick up its heels. Due to popular demand the Canadian premiere production of the Broadway hit has once again been extended through December 20. Theatre producer David Mirvish says, “We haven’t seen audiences respond to a musical like this for more than a decade. Each night audiences are up on their feet, dancing in the aisles and cheering on the cast!”
“THE BIG SLEEP”
Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius raises the curtain on a new season with an intelligent stage adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s first novel published in 1939. The 1946 film noir starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Dan Chameroy plays the central character Philip Marlowe, the wise-cracking private eye, a tough charismatic detective who doesn’t like guns, gets to the point with Donald Trump swagger, and is smoothly sophisticated with the ladies.
Marlowe is hired to investigate the perpetrator of events leading to a most convoluted set of murders, double-crosses, seedy pornography, missing persons and seduction.
The complex plot twists and turns like a corkscrew rollercoaster ride with eight actors playing multiple characters. The doubling up and split second costumes changes are easily accomplished by the likeable cast.
The set decoration, utilizing moveable props as well as the lighting design and projected images, creatively enhance the action making all narrative elements easily accessible to the audience. Ron Ulrich’s fluid direction keeps the action moving at a brisk place.
“The Big Sleep” is an old style whodunnit which never threatens and is enlivened by the gum shoe’s wise cracking dialogue.
The Theatre Aquarius production is on stage at the Dofasco Centre for the Arts through October 10th.
Written by: Alex Reynolds