‘Motown the Musical’ at The National Theatre

Music! Sweet, sweet music. There is music everywhere…

While it is town, you should make plans to see Motown the Musical. Plan on a night dancing in your seat to the music you have enjoyed for decades. Plan on clapping along, because you can’t stop yourself. Plan to go. Make plans, now. You have a month to see it here in DC, but don’t wait.

The show features hit after hit by Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5, Martha Reeves, Commodores, Rick James, Mary Wells, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the list goes on. There are close to 60 songs squeezed into this jukebox musical which is based on the book, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, by Berry Gordy.

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and the cast of Motown The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and the cast of Motown The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A battle of the bands between the Four Tops and the Temptations kicks off the show with terrific energy, and is followed by highlight performances that you never want to end. Some of the best showstoppers include Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye with an acapella “Mercy, Mercy Me” and closing the first Act with “What’s Going On?” Elijah Ahmad Lewis could double for Stevie Wonder and the man truly delivers “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”

Allison Semmes as Diana Ross owned the house as she pulled the audience into “Reach Out and Touch.” From her first step onstage, you never want to take your eyes off Ms. Semmes. My favorite duet of the evening was hers with Josh Tower as Berry Gordy, singing “You’re All I Need To Get By.” Tower plays the center of this musical story and his beautiful voice supports the highs and lows that Gordy shares from the Motown journey.

The story is framed by Motown’s 25th Anniversary show in 1983, but follows Berry Gordy’s early entry into the music business as a young songwriter, and finally to his position as one of the most influential pop music makers ever. It provides a Who’s Who of singers discovered and nurtured at Motown, who have influenced the music industry so strongly. The story is easy to follow and places the music within the context of the times, touching on influential historic landmarks. But make no mistake, this production is about the music and truly gifted singers perform those songs with support from every angle.

The orchestra, led by Darryl Archibald, is outstanding and is playing wonderful arrangements. For all those who appreciate spectacle, this production is impressive. The set, lights, and projections are stunning and coordinated brilliantly. Projections onto moving set pieces are using state-of-the-art tech and knocked me out, often reflecting the styles of the album covers from the songs performed. The set changes faster than cars roll off the assembly line in Detroit.

The dance for this show is creatively choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. With performers freed from the need to stand in front of mic stands, as the original groups had to do, the dancers of this show take the iconic moves of many of these performers and stretch them to new heights. The ensemble is lovely to watch them move, as well as to listen to.

Charles Randolph-Wright directs brilliantly as those who have seen his work at Arena Stage or elsewhere have grown to expect. The pace of the show is rapid, with fantastic songs often right on top of each other. The ballads and scenes that aren’t up-tempo and full of tremendous dancing, give us just enough time to catch our breaths before another wild, joyous number begins.

Costume design by Esosa capture iconic pieces that are still associated with some of the artists. Diana Ross’ costumes are gorgeous, from slinky draped gowns to frilled capes. The audience loved Michael Jackson’s wide brim purple hat worn in the early Jackson 5 years, as they loved the performance of a young Michael by Leon Outlaw, Jr. There are more than 450 costumes for the show and the 33 actors own them.

Finalizing the night of celebration, Gordy and Randolph-Wright both came onstage to huge ovations, to dance with the cast during curtain calls and share high fives. That is the same rating I offer for the show, a very high 5 stars.

Running Time: is 2 hours 40 minutes, including an intermission.


Motown the Musical plays through January 3, 2016 at The National Theatre -1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the box office, call (800) 514-3849 (ETIX), or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif


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