Diana Ross was its biggest star, but at Motown it was label-founder Berry Gordy who reigned supreme. It is his story that is told through Motown: The Musical, the self-serving live jukebox event based upon his memoir. To what level of pedestal will Gordy climb to tell of his role in hit-parade history? Ain't no mountain high enough.
And why not? The Motown catalogue soundtracked a particularly booming generation, the he's and she's of which dominated the Princess of Wales on opening night to catch a sweet, snazzy-free and short-of-story Broadway song-fest.
They were there in the 1960s and they remember the era, or at least its catchiest refrains. They really were ready for a brand-new beat, which Gordy (and his stable of stars and songwriters) perfected with assembly-line efficiency.
Motown: The Musical begins where it basically ended, a televised Motown reunion concert in 1983. By that time, the empire Gordy had built was in fade – the label's biggest acts and songwriters had left, money was draining, lawsuits replaced sheet music in paperwork priority. We see Gordy in low, angry mood in his mansion, feeling betrayed and unappreciated enough that he's considering boycotting the bygones-be-bygones event.
Meanwhile a rehearsal battle is happening between the Temptations and the Four Tops: Ain't Too Proud to Beg coming from performers representing the former; I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) from the latter. "Ain't too proud to beg," cracks one of the Tops toward the chart-topping counterparts, "but too old to dance." Oh snap. The show-starter is a scene-setter. One, it's a medley, not full songs. The upbeat production offers some 50 tunes, but most in abridged form. Two, we see a pair of superstar acts in rivalry, a key element to Gordy's business ethos – "competition breeds champions," we hear a competent Josh Tower as Gordy say. And three, the songs are catchy, catnip and quickly recognizable to the audience. Gordy operated the Detroit-based tune factory with quality controls and hard-and-fast rules, one of them being "hook them in the first 20 seconds" of the song.
After that, we drift back in time, from Gordy as a child with a dream to a youngish man with a plan. Money (That's What I Want) is performed when he asks his family for cash to start the label, but mostly the songs are independent of any plot points. (Where was Shop Around when Gordy is shown talking with his lawyer about selling the label?)
The stars here are the charismatic Allison Semmes as Diana Ross (Gordy's paramour and top managerial concern) and Jarran Muse, strong as the complicated Marvin Gaye. The story of the Let's Get It On singer is worthy of its own biopic or musical, although any involvement from the litigious Gaye family would probably make for a white-washed production, which just wouldn't do.
As for the sanitized Berry Gordy story, that we can live with – swinging, swaying, records playing. Sometimes all that is called for is music, sweet music, which is what Motown: The Musical delivers by the gold-plated ton.
Motown: The Musical runs in Toronto until Nov. 1 (mirvish.com).