Motown the Musical, opening night

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Clifton Oliver, the extraordinary Florida-born actor who transforms Berry Gordy into a tall, virile raging bull in the national touring production of Motown the Musical (yes, Gordy handpicked him for the role), was taken aside by the Chairman several weeks before the show arrived in Detroit.

“He was like, ‘You do understand you're coming into the city where I founded this company?’” recalls Oliver, making his first visit to Motown. “Mr. Gordy told me, ‘I lived in that city. People know how I act and how I sound.’”

And on Wednesday, Oct. 22, Gordy returned to see himself for himself.

Initially, the crude red carpet outside the entrance to the Fisher Theatre for the opening night of Motown the Musical in the Motor Town appeared to be the province of pseudo-celebs — friends of Four Tops, cousins of Contours. Then, suddenly, our city’s R&B royalty began rolling in: Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves, Duke Fakir — “all of the wonderful babies,” Gordy called them — and, of course, the man who made the music happen.

“If it were not for Detroit, I would not be standing here today,” Gordy said. “I’m so humbled to come back to where it all began, with the people of this great, great city that is magical. I have come full circle, and all my dreams have come [true].”

It was a historic homecoming, a once-in-a-Detroit-lifetime occasion. For one night, the bitterness, the move to Los Angeles, the lawsuits — everything melted away beneath the musical’s spectacular staging, choreography, and barrage of 65 classic Motown hits. Gordy knew these audiences would be the show’s acid test, and director Charles Randolph-Wright said Gordy told him it was essential this three-and-a-half week run (through Nov. 16), mere blocks away from the real Hitsville, U.S.A., be as good as the original Broadway production.

This writer saw this cast perform months ago at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. The Detroit opening night was better. The kicks were higher, the acting more intense, the singing soared. Allison Semmes, who stars as Diana Ross and says she sees no resemblance between her and the young Motown diva (are there no mirrors backstage?), is phenomenal.

It was a surreal evening. Michael Bolton, who performed at a splashy pre-show party at the Roostertail, milled about the lobby. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow came from Washington. Some Old Skool attendees looked like they hadn’t left the house since Motown bolted for L.A. in 1972. Judge Craig Strong, the ever-snazzy arbiter, sported a sparkling cherry-red suit that would make any Top or Tempt proud.

At intermission, Fakir, last of the original Four Tops, and his retinue were trying to make their way to the lobby bar. “Tell them who you are,” one nearby patron suggested.

“Oh, they know,” Fakir replied with a smile.

You could drive yourself batty trying to decide which Motown artists receive the shortest shrift. The Gordy-Ross relationship, which along with Motown’s 25th anniversary TV special in 1983 forms the backdrop of the plot, is supremely sanitized. So what? Sit back, let the music wash over you and, as the Vandellas might advise, come and get these memories.

At the end of the show, many of the Motown alums joined the cast onstage. “I just want to say, this is very personal to me,” Wonder said. “There were tears that I shed tonight, tears of amazement to know that God has blessed me to … be a part of the history.”

Then Wonder put his arm around Elijah Ahmad Lewis, the actor who plays him in the musical and closes the show with “I Wish,” to sing the song with him. No pressure.

Gordy praised his partner, Doug Morris, for persuading him to adapt his 1994 memoir, To Be Loved, for the stage. “[He] had the faith,” said Gordy. “He said, ‘If a lion doesn’t tell his own story, the hunters get all the credit.’”

For Motown the Musical tickets or information, call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com.


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