On Stage: ‘Motown the Musical’

Get ready, ’cause here they come! The Broadway hit makes its Washington debut. 

By

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as Martha Reeves (center) and cast (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The National Theatre was wild with energy the evening of December 2, as Motown The Musical made its Washington debut. Audience members sang along to timeless classics like “My Girl,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “Dancing in the Street,” “ABC,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” tied together in a spectacular performance. Berry Gordy himself made an appearance during curtain call to celebrate his legacy, Motown Records.

This Tony-nominated musical chronicles Gordy’s ups and downs in his conception, management and eventual sale of the Motown music label, as well as that of the artists he launched. Such pop culture legends include Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and many more. The show is based off Gordy’s 1994 autobiography.

Motown’s diva Diana Ross, played by , had the entire audience swaying and joining hands with the strangers sitting beside them. During her debut as a single artist, after breaking away from The Supremes, Semmes took her performance into the orchestra seats, asking various members of the crowd to sing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” into the microphone beside her.

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as Florence Ballard, Allison Semmes as Diana Ross and as Mary Wilson (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Semmes painlessly mimicked Diana’s trademark open-mouth, toothy smile and wide-eyed expression each time she sang a line.

Young Leon Outlaw Jr. amazed crowds in his portrayal of young Gordy, Stevie Wonder, and most notably, the pre-adolescent lead singer of the Jackson 5. Outlaw embodied Michael’s funky dance moves and adorable love of the stage, not to mention the vocals that blew America away, back in the day.

However, arguably the most impressive performance came from a smaller character, Mary Wells, played by Martina Sykes. In her short-lived time at Motown records, Sykes stunned the audience holding her high notes flawlessly for what felt like a full 10 seconds.

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as Marvin Gaye and cast (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Portrayals of all the main characters were spot-on, including Smokey’s lighthearted spirit, Marvin’s complicated nature and Stevie’s mannerisms and signature high-pitched scream.

The musical explains some of pop culture’s most important tracks in their historical contexts, incorporating real Civil Rights propaganda and videos of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into the show.

“Motown” is on tour, and will only be in Washington through January 3 before the show moves on to Richmond, Va. Tickets are up to $230 to see the story behind the music that brought America together through decades of separation and social struggle.

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