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‘Motown the Musical’ a powerhouse reminder of tumult then and now

Kenneth Mosley plays Berry Gordy with Trenyce as Diana Ross in "Motown The Musical," at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Oct. 8. (Photo: Michael Pool)

The world was a very different place when “Motown the Musical” made its initial visit to Chicago three years ago. And so, to some extent, was the show itself.

Founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1958, Motown — a creative “factory” modeled after Detroit’s then thriving auto plants — was very much a child of the 1960s. Ushered into being when Jim Crow laws still held sway in many parts of this nation, it became the quintessential soundtrack of change as it grew along with the chaos of three assassinations (President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, black power movement, inner-city riots of the late ’60s and more. And along the way Gordy oversaw his own revolution, becoming a formidable businessman, but more crucially a powerful force for cultural change as he fought to turn what was long called “race music” into a universally lauded sound, and nurtured some of the greatest songwriters and performers of the era.

Highly recommended
When: Through Oct. 8
Where: Cadillac Palace Theater,
151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $30 – $103
(800) 775-2000; www.broadwayinchicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and
40 minutes with one intermission

Watching the volcanic national touring production of “Motown” that has arrived at the Cadillac Palace Theatre for an all-too-brief one-week engagement, the sense of “then” and “now” comes into particularly vivid relief this time around. The show, which moves at the speed of light through a songbook of close to five dozen megahits, is in many ways more of an elaborate historical revue than a typical Broadway musical. With a surprisingly frank book by Gordy himself, we see a man of enormous vision, idealism, determination and ego, whose monumental success was built on some of the very same qualities that led to the decline of his company. We also get a snapshot of his relationship with Diana Ross, the woman he loved and turned into a superstar, but who, like many of the other artists he championed, ultimately declared independence. (Interestingly, that shift of loyalties echoes the one also faced by Sam Phillips in “Million Dollar Quartet.”)

But mostly “Motown” — whose high-tech, Pop Art-infused, sometimes cartoonish and perspective-twisting design elements (the work of set designer David Korins, lighting designer Natasha Katz and projection designer Daniel Brodie) make it possible to quickly move a show through 18 wide-ranging scenes — is about the music. And as directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and staged by Schele Williams, with fabulous synchronized choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams that heightens every classic move of the Temptations, the Four Tops and others, and is performed by a wholly dazzling array of singer-dancers outfitted in Emilio Sosa’s elaborate costumes, the music never stops.

Framing the show is the advent of a 25th anniversary celebration of the founding of Motown held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, which a bitter, unhappy Gordy initially refuses to attend. Flashbacks take us to Gordy’s childhood in Detroit just after Joe Louis becomes the world heavyweight boxing champion, and gradually the whole history of his company unspools.

Kenneth Mosley brings a strong voice and emotional directness to Gordy, capturing the energy, discipline and frequent emotional blindness of the man. Trenyce does a seamless job of moving from high school girl to breakout glam star to unhappy wife of a workaholic who knows she must move on. And she is particularly captivating in her interaction with the audience, with whom she forges an instant connection.

Justin Reynolds is superb as the hugely gifted and ever-loyal Smokey Robinson. So is Matt Manuel, who plays Marvin Gaye, the singer who leaves Gordy after becoming more politicized. Devin Holloway, a sensational dancer, is a knockout Jackie Wilson. Seventh-grader Kai Calhoun has the audience in stitches as he works his magic as the prodigious young Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. And bringing fireworks to multiple roles are Tracy Byrd, Jamari Johnson Williams, Erick Patrick, Trey McCoy, Brett Michael Lockley, EJ King, Dre’ Woods, Cartreze Tucker, Nya Trysha, Arielle Crosby, Quiana Holmes, Kayla Jenerson, Alia Munsch and Jasmine Maslanova-Brown. (Don’t be surprised to hear the audience sing along from time to time.)

The songbook? Everything from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby Love” and “Do You Love Me” to “Dancing in the Street,” “My Girl,” “ABC,” “Reach Out and Touch” to “What’s Going On.” And that is just for starters, with Matthew Croft leading the small but powerful band in Ethan Popp’s zesty (often abbreviated) arrangements.

Be sure to stick around for the grand finale which features archival film footage of the actual 25th anniversary Motown celebration. And prepare to leave the theater humming “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”