Ouch! To say the critics laid into Motown: The Musical, Broadway’s latest attempt to make another Jersey Boys-style jukebox hit, is a huge understatement. Though the soundtrack of the show will have your toes tapping, you’ll leave the theatre still searching for a story. With book-writer Gordy telling his own tale, the musical’s plot lacks intrigue and features undeveloped characters, drive-by plot points, and a one-sided and uninteresting perspective. Character after character is jammed onstage, showcasing an unbelievable number of songs but not much else (save some great orchestrations and a phenomenal performance by little Raymond Luke Jr. as a young Michael Jackson). Does this mean the death knell for new jukebox musicals? Many seem hopeful. For those excited to see this new show, move quickly before it boogies off Broadway or even consider a night with friends and a good Motown record instead — you may have more fun!
NEW YORK TIMES
“More than 50 songs (!) are performed in Motown, usually, alas, in truncated versions. Most are simply presented as concert versions by the actors playing the artists who made them famous, but a few are shoehorned awkwardly into the story as “book” songs…Making way for so much music means that Motown breezily scrimps on storytelling. Characters come and go so quickly we barely have time to register their famous names, let alone get to know them…The dialogue is often vinyl-stiff, written in a shorthand meant to convey as much story as possible in as few words as possible…The performers put their songs across with verve and an admirable lack of self-consciousness…For all the richness of its gold-and-platinum-plated soundtrack, Motown would be a much more satisfying nostalgia trip if Mr. Gordy and his collaborators were more effective curators of both story and song, rather than trying to encompass the whole of the label’s fabled history in two and a half hours. Irresistible as much of the music is, I often had the frustrating impression that I was being forced to listen to an LP being played at the dizzying, distorting speed of a 45.”
“If you are looking to bathe in nostalgia evoked by beloved tunes while watching talented and committed professionals do their industrious best to locate the magic of legendary performers, this is the show for you. If you prefer a well-written story with multidimensional characters that digs beneath the surface and uses song with dramatic acumen, then steer clear…Clichés abound…Director Charles Randolph-Wright’s fluid but old-fashioned staging complements the corn level. Choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams excel at reproducing the funky moves of groups such as the Temptations, the Four Tops, and, of course, the Supremes, but when trying to represent the tumult of the 1960s in “War” or the anger and rage engendered by the assassination of Martin Luther King in “What’s Going On,” their effortful work falls short. Ethan Popps scintillating orchestrations and arrangements (done with Bryan Crook) pop beautifully under his superb musical direction…Stealing the show is Raymond Luke Jr. as the young Michael Jackson. It’s not just that Luke has the sound and the moves down cold; his innocent, radiant joy in performing momentarily elevates the proceedings to a whole new level. Though some fans may be disappointed that so many of the songs flash by in snippets, Gordy has gambled that Motown: The Musical is all about its music—and he’s probably right.”
AM NEW YORK
“Instead of having to endure perhaps a dozen different jukebox musicals based on various Motown icons in future years, Motown: The Musical allows us to get it all over with in one shot. It’s an unwieldy and unfocused attempt to package dozens of hit songs from all the trailblazing Motown performers of the 1960s and 1970s into a single sugarcoated, sanitized narrative revolving about workaholic megaproducer Berry Gordy. Still, this elaborate, very busy production ought to please anyone looking to take a nostalgia trip and overlook its problems…Although many famous performers and groups are ably impersonated both physically and vocally…they all receive the same superficial treatment. Gordy was closely involved with the musical and wrote its poor book…“Jersey Boys,” which is undeniably the best of the jukebox genre, unhesitatingly addressed the Four Seasons’ gritty past, while “Motown” hides all traces of scandal under the rug. Even the racial tensions of the period are addressed too fleetingly to make an impact. Ironically, while Motown bemoans how the music industry was ultimately swallowed up by corporate giants that wooed away Gordy’s major clients with wild offers, the musical is essentially a company history section of a corporate website. 2 stars ”
“The 2 1/2-hour show, about Motown Records under founder Berry Gordy, opened Sunday at The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre completely unbalanced: The songs are staggering, the book utterly flimsy. Both are due to one man: Gordy, who clearly knows what makes an indelible hit song, but also has an inability to write objectively about that skill. As the book writer, Gordy comes across almost divine, a true visionary who literally changed the world and race relations but was eventually abandoned by the artists he made stars when they sought to cash in. There are parts of the show that even a North Korean dictator would find excessively flattering…Charles Randolph-Wright proves a director with real skill, able to seamlessly juggle an insane amount of songs, dozens of scenes and harness some quite stunning performances, led by a go-for-it Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy and Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross, who especially shines during an ad lib moment with the audience…To be fair, Gordy’s story is a remarkable one and should be told onstage, warts and all. His songs are the soundtrack of America, but letting him tell his own story has cheapened it.”