Above: Gabriella Whiting as Florence Ballard, Allison Semmes as Diana Ross, and Tavia Riveé as Mary Wilson (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Every so often, a show or concert or game transcends the typical level of greatness you’d generally expect to see. Wednesday night’s rendition of "Motown the Musical" at the Fisher Theatre was one of those unforgettable experiences.
As the appreciative crowd roared throughout the final curtain calls, an additional standing ovation was given for the Motown architect himself, Berry Gordy. Sauntering to the stage from his seat in the middle of the floor came Gordy -- now 87 and somehow not appearing a day over 45. (Bob Seger is right -- music really does soothe the soul.)
After a long embrace with Allison Semmes (playing Diana Ross, his longtime love), Gordy came face-to-face with his fictional self, Chester Gregory, and was eventually handed the microphone to address the delirious crowd.
“Thank you so much, Detroit,” Gordy said. “I am actually humbled every time I come back here because I had a life where it all started in Detroit. It’s a town that’s full of love. And there’s nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it.”
It was simple, yet appropriate advice on a night when the improbable rise of the Motown music label had its story come to life on the Motor City stage.
While "Motown the Musical" is not billed as a singalong, it might as well be. Throughout the night, the audience is encouraged to clap along to the beat or belt out a chorus or two. There is no need for any tutorial on the lyrics; this is a Detroit crowd that could recite these familiar tunes at the snap of a finger.
It’s a funny feeling hearing the people next to you you singing right along with the cast -- not shy about volume or exuberance -- yet feeling no need to notify an usher or tell them to quiet down. This is a Motown party and anybody with a ticket is invited to join.
Gregory is stellar as "BG" Barry Gordy, combining measured, powerful vocals with a more amusing, playful side in scenes with Ross and Smokey Robinson.
Perhaps the most memorable sequence takes place when the Jackson 5 grabs the spotlight, led by CJ Wright as young Michael. The 11-year-old somehow recreates that unmistakable sound on the hit “ABC,” bringing a jolt of energy to the second act.
The scenes heavier on dialogue might drag on occasion, but only because there is such an insatiable desire for the cast to break into the next chart-topping Motown song.
It is Semmes’ time to shine (as Ross) during “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, an uplifting number in which she wades into the crowd for a little audience accompaniment and instruction.
Fans did as they were told; clasping hands with seatmates, swaying side to side, and relishing in this feel-good moment of Motown-inspired unity.
See the show
- When: Through April 30 (except April 24)
- Times: Tuesday- Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday evenings, 7 p.m.; weekend matinees, 2 p.m.
- Tickets: Available here for $39 to $138 (many high-priced seats are sold out)