Review: ‘Motown the Musical’ at the Hippodrome Theatre

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The fun of seeing Motown the Musical starts a few hours before leaving for the theater. Just the promise of that glorious oldies playlist is like inner ear foreplay. There isn’t much that puts a bounce in the step of a romantic these days, but a ticket to any local tour stop of this show can do it.

The national road company is now making a too-brief weekend visit at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright has been with the 2013 Broadway production and through all its sold-out national tours. He certainly knows how to fill its vacancies with charismatic talent by this point, and he keeps all those colorful personalities churning up whatever dramatic payoffs exist in the thin book.

The Temptations in Motown the Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Temptations in Motown the Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Based on the autobiography of Motown founder and guiding genius Berry Gordy, this is still something more than a jukebox show. Its narrative briskly moves through the milestones and setbacks of the once-struggling songwriter as he builds a recording empire patterned after a Detroit auto assembly line: the iron frame glides in one door and a beautiful dream of a first-class ride drives out the other.

The succession of hit singles soon follows, along with the development of dazzling new stars like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five.

The book touches on Gordy’s relationship with Ross, although anyone looking for insights or substantive drama will have to read between the lyrics. In the end, the empire is torn apart by success and societal upheavals, but its family of stars still have enough love left for a big reunion and a grand finale.

In Baltimore, the role of Berry Gordy is in the excellent hands of singer-actor Kenneth Mosley, who makes Gordy’s wheeler-dealer ambitiousness endearing with his open smile and honest enthusiasm. He is more than capable of delivering the big singing solos, too, particularly in that climactic soul-baring final solo, “Can I Close the Door on Love?”

Grammy-nominated singer Trenyce is a welcome revelation playing Diana Ross. With near-perfect pitch and an eerily similar timbre, Trenyce delivers the diva’s sinuous cooing and sheer, silken joy of performing with crowd-pleasing marksmanship. The actress even handles the audience participation segment for “Reach Out and Touch” in Act II like a veteran showbiz trooper.

Backed up vocally by Alex Hairston as Florence Ballard and Quiana Holmes as Mary Wilson, Trenyce coaxes the audience to settle back in pure pleasure and enjoy the lush harmonics of “Baby Love” and the chugging locomotive drive of “Stop! In the Name of Love,” among others.

Kayla Jenerson as Mary Wells hits “My Guy” out of the Hippodrome, then goes on to prove herself another amazing powerhouse singer in a show quite literally off the charts with them.

Matt Manuel wins over the crowd as a silky Marvin Gaye, even pulling off the tricky a cappella arrangement of the plaintive protest cri du coeur,  “What’s Going On?”

Justin Reynolds evokes some of the evening’s biggest smiles as Smokey Robinson, whether serving as Gordy’s foil or stepping to the fore with the Miracles for “Shop Around” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me.”

Kai Calhoun and Chase Phillips alternate in the showcase roles of the childhood Berry Gordy, the early Stevie Wonder and the inimitable Michael Jackson (an audience thriller in his “ABC” signature moves and 1970s funk wardrobe).

The live Motown orchestra under Music Director Matthew Croft (doing the savvy arrangements of Ethan Popp) and the almost nonstop excitement of Choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams help make the changing eras come to vibrant life.

The great Motown package of hits has been tied up with wide swaths of professionalism and ribbons of rainbow light by this traveling troupe. As the song says, there’s “Dancin’ in the Streets” in Baltimore again. The fun starts as soon as you “reach out” and say, “I’ll be there!”

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Motown the Musical plays through April 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call 800-982-ARTS or go online.