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Motown Motown: The Musical

Broadway performances presented by 500 local youth

Michael McGee | 7/15/2013, 8:11 a.m.
There was a little bit of Detroit in Big D inside the Dallas Convention Center Theater Complex, Friday and Saturday. ...
Motown, little Michael Jackson

– MUSICAL REVIEW –

The Dallas Examiner

There was a little bit of Detroit in Big D inside the Dallas Convention Center Theater Complex, Friday and Saturday. The Summer Youth Arts Institute, in conjunction with The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, brought the TBAAL season finale to a stirring close with Motown Motown: The Musical.

From the floor seats to the upper balcony, the Naomi Bruton Main Stage Theater was packed, as the event focused on the music that came out of Hitsville, U.S.A., from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

Writer/director Curtis King stepped onstage to rouse the crowd, telling them that when he recently saw Motown Motown: The Musical! on Broadway he thought that it would be a perfect vehicle to bring a slice of Americana to the city.

“It moved me so much that I knew then that I wanted to do this particular piece,” he said.

Having a live band play as the audience found their seats laid down the theme of the night: wall-to-wall music, nonstop, as heads bounced, hands clapped and toes tapped. There were even a few voices singing along to their favorite Motown hits.

The show itself was too big for the stage to hold it all. The program listed principal dancers, aisle dancers, and apron dancers among the cast, rounding out a group of almost 500 local youth. Along with King and the guidance of other dedicated adults, this young, creative company put together a song-filled show in 12 days.

The show highlight was a look back on the year 1959, when Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, was still a songwriter. Titus Foster portrayed a lean, bow-tied Jackie Wilson, eliciting cheers when he broke out with Lonely Teardrops, Gordy’s first big hit. Some of those cheers turned into excited whoops when Foster hit the high notes just as Wilson had done years before.

King spoke about rediscovering that history.

“We think it’s a good thing for the kids to study the music,” he said. “At one time I kept thinking that some of the music might be a little bit heavy, but because the music is so rich. The best way to preserve it is let the kids be able to sing it so they can have an experience with the music.”

Two versions of I Heard It Through The Grapevine competed for the audience’s appreciation. The Marvin Gaye interpretation featured William Campbell and JaDerian Griffin taking their turn with the smooth tune, while the Gladys Knight version, sung by Harper Jones, pumped it with funk.

Then the two Marvins were joined by a third, transitioning into the Pips, complete with their choreographed gestures and movements. The shift was seamless and imaginative, and the audience loved it.

The show covered not just the smooth sounds and funky beats that Motown produced through the years, but also the ballads such as Endless Love, the dance floor favorites such as ABC and reverberations of social consciousness like Ball of Confusion.

Throughout the show the band remained on stage, one section of the musicians on risers towards the back, the other section planted center stage. This made the music itself become part of the cast; a living prop that provided a non-vocal narration of the show.

Keeping with history, the set was appropriately minimalist. The show was not about dressing, after all, but about past Motown talent interpreted by this city’s future stars. The sparse scenery was composed mostly of black and white risers and stairs, reminiscent of televised music shows from the era, like American Bandstand or Hullabaloo, with lighting effects adding some texture and color, giving a 1970s Soul Train presence to it all during the later phases of the performance.

In all, with 26 songs, the evening showcased several truly professional-level performances from skilled entertainers. Rachel Dupard’s performance of What’s Going On, Tyrin Foster’s version of My Girl and LaOni Carroll’s rendition of I Wish especially won the enthusiasm of the crowd. At the end of the show, the cast and crew earned a particularly loud standing ovation.