Motown: The Musical reeks of a vanity project. It's subject? Motown founder Berry Gordy. It's author? Berry Gordy.
The difference here? Gordy has access to some of the finest R&B, soul, funk, and pop music of the last half century.
The excellent music and largely excellent performances don't overcome Gordy's stiff, stilted, and self-centered book. No, let's call it what it is. Gordy's writing is bad. It's bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.
No key moment is too important (the assassination of President Kennedy, the go-to event for mediocre musicals to show us that the times were a changin') for Gordy to take the chance to show how good of a person he was by not thinking about hits for a weekend. We take strange detours into areas no one outside of Gordy would care about, like getting Diana Ross and the Supremes gigs in Las Vegas.
The writing is clunky and loaded with cliches that would make a first-term creative-writing student blush, or make you wonder if Gordy is settling decades-old scores. After a fallout with Marvin Gaye, Gordy's character says he's been like a father to the songwriter. "I've got a father," Gaye says as he walks away. Gaye was shot and killed by his father in 1984. A good writer could have used that moment as foreshadowing. Of course, a good writer also would have focused this show on Gaye (or Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, or the largely missing-in-action Stevie Wonder).
It's a shame, as when the focus is on the music Motown is a largely giddy ride loaded with hits and hot performances. It sometimes feels a bit ADD, with 60 (60!) bits and pieces of tunes crammed into the piece. Still, the company embraces these chances to leave the stale plot behind and dive into some terrific music.
It's best when the music and performances combine into something beyond just a concert recreation. Their version of Edwin Starr's "War" drives home the tumult of the times better than any speech from Gordy. Sometimes, that just comes through just in the performances, as in the driving Act Two-opening "Ball of Confusion" by the substitute Temptations.
Even the cheapest tickets to this show could net you copies of the Hitsville U.S.A. box sets, which have all of the hits (and plenty more) from the show. The priciest tickets mean you could add in some Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and other deluxe reissues, along with a documentary (Standing in the Shadow of Giants is a good one) about Motown. And none of this would have Gordy shouting in your ear.
IF YOU GO:
Motown: The Musical Through December 28 Orpheum Theatre 910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis $49-$134 Fort tickets and more information, call 800-982-2787 or visit online.