The music business is full of people who might say that Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. is his own worst enemy, and based on Broadway's Motown: The Musical, now at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, I'd be inclined to agree. Not so much because of what Gordy reveals about his arguably questionable business dealings, but because of the poor way in which the nearly three-hour show utilizes the greatest pop music catalogue ever created.
As in many a biodrama, the work is told in flashback, starting on the night of a famed 25th anniversary Motown television special that Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon) seems reluctant to attend. The show charts the Detroit-based record label's trajectory from its humble beginnings in 1957, when Gordy convinces his family to invest in his nascent business. It then tumbles on through the company's groundbreaking rise to 1960s megasuccess before glossing over its financial troubles in the 1970s. As huge chunks of time go by in a blur, David Korins' series of swiftly changing sets, Daniel Brodie's evocative projections, and the mass of period-authentic costumes by ESosa let us know where we are, even when the script doesn't.
Rather than giving us a complex portrait on this fascinating businessman, the show's shoddily written book is essentially a self-serving theatrical memoir in which Gordy gets to tell his life story. But just as importantly, the piece also serves as a celebration of the music that brought America's black and white populations together in a way nothing else ever did. Perhaps that is why Gordy and his creative team, led by director Charles Randolph-Wright, seem so worried they left out an audience favorite that they crammed in more than 50 hits. The result is that too few of the beloved Motown classics receive the kind of full-scale, all-out renditions they deserve. An early, extended version of Martha & The Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" proves not just a high point (abetted by energetic choreography from Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams), but a false promise of what lies ahead.
Ultimately, we want to hear all of "I'll Be There" by a young Michael Jackson (the adorable Raymond Luke, Jr.) and the Jackson Five. We also long for more tunes by Stevie Wonder (who only shows up briefly, sharply impersonated by Ryan Shaw), and Gordy's volatile brother-in-law Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark), among others.
As Gordy, Dixon gives a reliably solid performance, and does quite well by his 11-o'clock number, "Can I Close the Door" (one of the show's few original tunes, penned by Michael Lovesmith and Gordy himself). He also has an easy rapport with best pal Smokey Robinson, sweetly embodied by the excellent Charl Brown.
The one person who truly shines, though, is Valisia LeKae as Gordy's longtime paramour, superstar Diana Ross. It's not just her almost spot-on re-creation of Miss Ross' breathy voice and steely demeanor that commands our attention. The consistent display of her genuine star power — most evident in a thrilling "Reach Out and Touch" segment — also draws us in. Once more, though, Gordy insists on strenuously rewriting personal history, actually omitting the birth of his and Miss Ross' daughter, Rhonda, in 1971. (In fairness, all of Gordy's numerous wives and children are either left out or barely mentioned for whatever reason.)
In fact, as LeKae sings Ross' "Remember Me" toward the show's end, you realize there is no chance we'll forget this actress' striking work long after most of Motown: The Musical has faded into a disappointing memory.