Mo' ‘Motown': Berry Gordy Bio-Musical Back on Broadway

Ed. Note: The Broadway return of “Motown” had been announced as a limited 18-week engagement. Producers posted a surprise closing notice late Thursday, and the final performance is now set for July 31.

Shows change theaters all the time, but it’s rare that one closes during a successful Broadway run, heads out on national tour and then returns to New York, picking up where it left off.

That’s the case with “Motown,” which logged 775 performances at the Lunt Fontanne, wrapping up in January 2015 and spawning both a national tour and London production. So, to borrow a line from Marvin Gaye, what’s going on?

Producer Kevin McCollum has told Playbill that the newest incarnation of “Motown,” now open at the Nederlander Theatre, is “tighter,” with lines cut, sets scaled back and more reliance on projection video. It’s also -- and this is me talking now -- more endearing.

“Motown” is based on the biography of founder Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy, 86, wrote the book for this stage adaptation and is also a producer. The two-act musical is dotted with snippets and medleys of some 60 Motown songs, from “Stop in the Name of Love” to “Super Freak.”

The story tracks Gordy’s life from adolescent inspirations (he watches Joe Louis defeat Max Schmeling on TV) to the 1980s, when he wrestles with whether to attend a Motown homage produced by his former creative assistant. (Taped in March 1983 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, “Motown 25” was broadcast on NBC later that year.)

By the 1980s, Gordy feels abandoned by many of the talents he nurtured, as they leave his flock for bigger contracts. Will he or won’t he attend the reunion concert? Gordy is in a ball of confusion, and “Motown” is presented as a history lesson between the bookends of him contemplating that question.

The new cast -- Broadway’s original Gordy was Brandon Victor Dixon, now Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” -- is noticeably at ease with the material.

Chester Gregory (“The Jackie Wilson Story”), as the central figure, is driven and insistent, but only when there’s an obvious justification for being so. We believe his Berry Gordy holds the interests of his singers at heart over his own. Would we expect less from a production so carefully curated by its own protagonist?

The real Diana Ross seems to believe her own image as a benevolent diva still in touch with the unpretentious simplicity of her origins. Here, Allison Semmes puts that over with ruthless sincerity, introducing a sly and ironic sense of self-awareness to the leading role.

Semmes is at her finest during an audience-participation sequence that has Ross making her solo debut in Las Vegas

Jesse Nager is appealing as Smokey Robinson, the down-to-earth talent charged with keeping Gordy grounded. He conveys willingness to please without coming off as a patsy. Effective, as well, is Jarran Muse as a soulful Marvin Gaye, who lets his growing impatience and anger simmer and boil over in small, intense bursts.

“Motown” has an ensemble of nearly three dozen assorted Tops, Temptations, Commodores, Contours and the like. Let’s single out the marvelous Martina Sykes, who as Mary Wells holds a long note with beguiling steadiness, and the charismatic Leon Outlaw Jr. (alternating with J.J. Batteast) as young Michael Jackson.

With both Jackson and Gaye depicted so robustly on stage, you may pause to wish time had ground to a halt in 1983.

An exchange that has Gordy telling Gaye Motown won’t release the singer’s protest-oriented music includes references to “trigger-happy policing” that lend an unexpected timeliness to the proceedings. Otherwise, what we have here is an improved and infectious excuse to revisit dozens of Motor City chestnuts.

“Motown,” at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets, through July 31, $97-$147. Call 877-250-2929.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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