Motown the Musical “Hits” Philadelphia

-Brenda Hillegas
(photo courtesy of Joan Marcus for the Kimmel Center)

Last night, I found myself falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Berry Gordy, Hitsville U.S.A., Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson. I clicked and clicked some more. Around midnight I think I went too far (did you know Ashlee Simpson is married to one of Diana’s sons? Or that Berry Gordy’s son and grandson make up the dance music duo LMFAO?)…it was definitely time for bed.

“At Motown, we call ourselves a family and we were- a big family.” Berry Gordy was not kidding.

Okay. Let’s backtrack. Berry Gordy is an American producer and songwriter. He founded the Motown record label in Detroit, launching the careers of artists such as The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and countless others. Check out the complete discography of Motown here, it will knock your socks off.

Motown the Musical, playing now until June 11th at the Academy of Music, tells the story of Berry Gordy’s life, from a child and through his career signing artists at Motown. The musical is developed by Gordy himself and features over 40 classic hits from the Motown songbook. I grew up with these songs. My parents listened to all of them in the car and I, inevitably, learned every word.

Motown the Musical made me feel as though I was getting the opportunity to see some of these musicians live. In the flesh. The entire audience felt the same way. When Stevie Wonder (played by Elijah Ahmad Lewis), Michael Jackson (a young, absolutely astounding Raymond Davis Jr.) and Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse) started to sing, it was as if the actual icons were standing in front of the audience. We cheered them on and showed them our appreciation just the same. Incredible.

You don’t need to have a degree in the history of pop music or love the stories (and drama) behind the songs, but if you like all of that (my personal library will tell you that I absolutely love it), Motown the Musical is definitely for you. What you do need is the ability to sing along, clap and shout as if you were at the best concert of your life.

Chester Gregory (from Gary, Indiana, just like Michael Jackson) plays Berry Gordy and if I didn’t know any better, you would think he actually is Berry Gordy. Not that I know Berry to make a sound comparison, but Gregory portrayed the musical’s lead on Broadway as well and the way he takes on every word, every emotion, every note…you really would believe that much passion could only be expressed by Gordy himself. Motown the Musical is by no means the “Berry Gordy” show, but I bet that if you take away all of the other actors Gregory could perform the entire plot singlehandedly with ease. He is a star.

Allison Semmes plays the role of Diana Ross, and during the second act, she makes damn sure the audience comes together to put positive vibes into the universe. I won’t give too much away, because you’ll want to be a part of this experience, but let’s just say that if every event began with the audience holding hands and singing aloud, I’m certain the world would be a better place. Semmes was beyond perfect as the queen Supreme.

Motown the Musical debuted on Broadway just a few short years ago in 2013, but it’s a classic show with a timeless message that should have been told much sooner. The songs will be remembered forever, but the stories and the struggles behind the human beings involved in Motown decades ago are still very relatable today.

I’ve seen a lot of musicals. I’ve seen some of those musicals twice. I’ve seen some six times (Rent). Motown the Musical is, without a doubt, one of the best musicals I have ever seen. You’ll be impressed by the singing, the dancing, the costumes, the nostalgia, the feeling of being in another place and time. And if it weren’t for my incredibly busy schedule between now and the last show here in Philly, I’d see it again. So do me a favor and go for me. Tickets can be purchased here.

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