April 15 (Bloomberg) -- For sheer opening-number verve, it’s hard to beat an old-fashioned battle of the bands when the bands are the Temptations and the Four Tops.
An excellent simulacrum of such a showdown kicks off “Motown: The Musical,” maybe the best bad musical ever. The groups are in Pasadena, California, rehearsing for a televised celebration of Motown Records’s 25th anniversary.
Over the course of this juicy soul jukebox show, we’ll watch irresistible performances of the Detroit-born classics that brought “race music” into the mainstream, from Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” to the Supremes’s “Stop In The Name Of Love” and the Jackson Five’s “The Love You Save.”
There’s more unknown talent on display here -- poured into Esosa’s slinky skintight sequined gowns and tuxedos whose lapels peak somewhere north of male earlobes -- than a decade of Wednesday nights at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
The story behind the hits, as written by Berry Gordy and narrated in the show by his avatar, Brandon Victor Dixon, is a more depressing matter. The wince- and titter-inducing words between the songs and the ravishingly charged dance numbers are hagiography.
I doubt that it will matter, not only to Broadway’s essential tourist trade but also to the theatergoers who have made “Jersey Boys” a global blockbuster. It’s about the songs, period.
Against that opening rehearsal, we cut to Gordy at home, feeling neglected, refusing to attend the evening in his honor.
“One day you wake up and the stars you polished so hard to shine are not only shining but in orbit -- out of control of themselves and in control of you!” he pouts.
Suddenly and briefly we’re in 1938, as the Gordy family watches Joe Louis defeat Max Schmeling. “I wanna be Joe Louis!” little Berry tells big Berry.
Instead, the young man detects talent in the ambitious Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye (Charl Brown and Bryan Terrell Clark, both terrific) and has Jackie Wilson ((Michael Arnold) record one of the many songs Berry himself wrote or co-wrote.
When a trio of high school-age girls shows up at Gordy’s busy new studio, he tells them to come back after graduation. They persist and the Supremes are born. Diana Ross, played with uncanny verismo by a breathy, wide-eyed, dazzler named Valisia LeKae, becomes Galatea to his Pygmalion.
The other standouts in the cast are N’Kenge’s seductive Mary Wells, Ryan Shaw’s bobble-headed Stevie Wonder and young Raymond Luke’s adorable Michael Jackson.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright and choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams never allow our focus to drift far from this extraordinary catalogue of songs. David Korins’s skeletal scenery morphs from tacky to glittering under Natasha Katz’s fantastically varied lighting palette.
In what must represent the author’s attempt at honest self-revelation, there’s a hilarious hotel scene with Ross and Gordy in bed post non-coitus. After reassuring him that she doesn’t mind, Diana sings “I Hear a Symphony.”
Schubert’s “Unfinished,” no doubt. (Jeremy Gerard)
At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; http://www.motownthemusical.com. Rating: ***
Best known as the perky ingenue in musicals, Kerry Butler plays against type in Tanya Barfield’s “The Call,” a new off-Broadway drama about adoption, race and the pull of faraway orphans.
Butler plays childless fortyish artist Annie. We meet her as she and her husband, Peter, (Kelly AuCoin) host a dinner for their only black friends, a lesbian couple -- Drea (Crystal A. Dickinson) and Rebecca (Eisa Davis).
Rebecca and Drea are back from a safari in Africa, which might as well have been Disneyland for the little they absorbed. Annie and Peter are trying to adopt, and when it looks as though an Arizona prospect is falling through, Annie suggests they look for an African child.
“We’ll have to deal with everyone thinking we’re making a baby-fashion statement,” Peter says.
“There’re over 50 million orphans in Africa,” Annie responds. “I doubt they feel like fashion statements.”
The couple is elated when they get a call about an available girl. Drea needles Annie about seeking an African over needy American black kids.
One subplot involves an enigmatic African neighbor (Russell G. Jones); another, the fate of Rebecca’s brother years ago in Africa. While neither diversion is entirely satisfying, the play under Leigh Silverman’s direction is an engrossing mesh of the political and personal. (Philip Boroff)
Co-produced by Primary Stages at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic and Philip Boroff is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Richard Vines on food.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.