Motown the Musical, the motherlode of tribute music, opened to a packed Buell Theatre in Denver Tuesday night. The true story of entertainment entrepreneur and visionary Berry Gordy and his amazing career after he founded the record company Motown in 1959 was written by Gordy himself and produced in collaboration with Tony Award-winning Kevin McCollum (Rent, In the Heights, Avenue Q) and Doug Morris, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment.
Motown—named after motor town Detroit—was more than a record label that launched the careers of such stars as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells and others. It was also a sound, a culture, an attitude that reached across then segregated America and tore down barriers.
When a disc jockey asked Gordy (aptly played by Clifton Oliver), “What makes you think white people will buy your music,” the answer came back in spades. In the first 10 years of operation, Motown had 163 singles in Billboard magazine’s top 20, and 28 that sat at number 1.
Sixty of those hits are reprised in Motown the Musical, with all the pizzaz—synchronized moves, spit-shined shoes and sequined dresses—of the original performers. The audience clapped and sang along to classics like “Brick House,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “My Girl,” and “Stop in the Name of Love.” The musical sets were simple but dazzling and energetic. “Dancing in the Streets” was a highlight.
The fast-paced telling of Gordy’s career and all its characters through flashback vignettes was not as easy to follow along as the familiar songs and artist portrayals that clearly were the crowd favorites. Leon Outlaw, Jr. brought the house down as a young Michael Jackson (“an old soul in a kid’s body”), his real-life inspiration; and Elijah Ahmad Lewis was a dead ringer for Stevie Wonder. With the superstar’s recent appearance at Denver’s Pepsi Center, some in the audience wondered if it was actually him taking a bow.
Most impressive was opera-trained Allison Semmes who portrayed Gordy’s protégé and later girlfriend Diana Ross (their term of endearment for each other was “black”). She captured the diva’s breathy speaking voice as well as her powerhouse singing. In the second act Semmes came down into the audience and led a sing-along to “Reach Out and Touch” as everyone joined hands held high and swayed. It was a moment, symbolic of how music crosses all barriers and is the unifying thread to diversity—the legacy of love left by 86-year-old Berry Gordy.
Motown the Musical plays the Buell Theatre through April 19. Performances times are Tuesday-Sunday, 7:30 p.m. (except April 19); Saturday, Sunday and Thursday, April 16, 2 p.m. To buy tickets, call 303-893-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org.