Home and family are at the heart of the shows I recently attended. Whether the home is Detroit or the shores of Cape Cod, home and family, and all the struggles that are attached to them are universal. Both tales are also largely cast with African-American performers, and there is no dearth of exquisite talent in that community, whether the show is fresh from Broadway or locally produced.
Motown The Musical (As opposed to what, Motown The Sandwich? This trend needs to end) is the summation of the rise, success, and decline of the career of the big Daddy of Motown records Berry Gordy. Though Gordy’s own story (he wrote this show’s book), and especially his intoxication with his most lauded discovery Diana Ross are front and center, a more thorough, if fictionalized snapshot of that part of his life is covered better in the beloved 80’s musical Dreamgirls. The rest of the iconic figures represented herein are like vivid and solid celebrity impersonators, taking on Gordy’s iconic musical family members. Besides Miss Ross, we get Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, young Michael Jackson, and a slew of others, portrayed tirelessly as they switch in and out of roles by a dazzling ensemble cast. This is a guilty pleasure entertainment at its finest, but it does make you realize how so much of this show’s music, culled from the vast Motown catalogue, has, as if by osmosis, imbedded itself in our hearts and minds.
The tale flashes back and then forward as Gordy (the impressively talented Chester Gregory) waffles between going or not going to the huge, televised 25th anniversary celebration of Motown. The show is too overstuffed with music; Sometimes you wish you had a whole song instead of just an excerpt or a snippet of one. Appropriately given the show’s conceit, TV’s biggest variety show host Ed Sullivan pops up to introduce an act on his long-running show (a dead-on cameo impression by Doug Storm) and Sullivan’s major 60’s variety rival The Hollywood Palace is also remembered as Diana makes her last appearance with the Supremes.
As Diana Ross, Allison Semmes captures the beauty, small town girl to mega-star transition, and diva behavior of the legend, and has a fine voice to boot, but not the kind of star-wattage (or stage-time) to really capture the singing legend. It is easier for the talented Jesse Nager and Jaran Muse (as an affable Smokey Robinson and fiery Marvin Gaye) to be believable, as their own off-stage lives are not as well documented as Miss Ross’ has been. Young J.J. Bateast (who alternates with Leon Outlaw, Jr.) is on fire as a young Michael Jackson, nailing the innocence and yet old soul of that mega-star to be back when his life was as simple as A-B-C.
Motown The Musical is directed with a driving pace by Charles-Randolph Wright, and choreographed with stylistic integrity to the original moves of the era by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams. The scenic design by David Korins is fluid and fabulous, as is Natasha Katz’s lighting design. Esosa’s costume designs along with the sensation hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe capture all the technicolored shimmer, style and spectacle of the era. Music director/conductor Daryl Archibald and his band of company and local musicians do the music full justice. Don’t go looking in this treasure box for anything but easily digested nuggets of truth mixed with huge, segmented dollops of pop music recreation, and you will surely surrender to Motown The Musical.
Motown The Musical runs at the Paramount Theatre (9th and Pine St, Seattle) through June 12, 2016. For tickets and more visit stgpresents.org.
Heartbreak and hilarity intersect to fine effect in Intiman Theatre Festival’s 2016 opener Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond. Director Justin Emeka fares well eliciting rock-solid performances from an exemplary cast, but pacing issues, and a certain tentativeness on opening night marred the proceedings somewhat. Those should vanish with repeated performances.
The LeVays, are an upper class African-American family with a vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard, the popular upscale island vacation spot off the coast of Cape Cod. Dr. Joseph LeVay, the family patriarch, is a neurosurgeon who provides very well for his family. The play opens with Flip and Kent’s arrival at the family vacation “cottage” with Kimber and Taylor, their respective love interests. Things start to get tense when issues of race are brought up in conversation, and the discussion quickly shifts into an argument between Taylor and Kimber. Even though their debate is about more than just socioeconomics, neither woman wants to admit it. Secrecy becomes a major theme as the weekend progresses. The family maid, Ms. Ellie, knows something more than she is telling her daughter Cheryl, who is filling in due to Ms. Ellie’s sudden, mysterious illness. Mrs. LeVay is also a no-show, though Dr. LeVay knows more than he lets on. A family celebration quickly turns into a family crisis as each member of the LeVay’s are forced to confront their feelings about their pasts and one another, while the befuddled girlfriends are sorting out how to deal with this baffling, battling brood.
G. Valmont Thomas is striking as the LeVay patriarch, who shifts moods from jovial to sarcastic faster than you could flip a flapjack. He makes a potentially odious character multi-shaded and even sympathetic. As Flip and Kent LeVay, Reginald Andre Jackson and Tyler Trerise are exceptional as two strikingly different brothers, working out their differences amidst chaos. Chantal DeGroat succeeds in making us even give a damn about the flighty, foot-in-her-mouth, hot mess that Flip’s entomologist girlfriend Taylor is. She earns many big laughs as this lady-bull runs wild in Martha’s Vineyard. But perhaps best of all are Seattle veteran actress Bhama Roget as Flip’s lady Kimber and Seattle newcomer Amara Granderson as Cheryl. Roget gives a masterful portrait of the only Caucasian in the mix, salting Kimber with just the right amounts of pretension and condescension alongside common sense, and peppering the role with her trademark wit and humor. Granderson gets to show a ton of range in her Seattle debut role, and she makes Cheryl by turns dippy, flight, quippy, snappish, easily wounded, and devasted. I look forward to seeing a lot more of her work.
Director Emeka inserts little dance breaks into the scene changes, which are of no discernible impact or effect, as the splendidly realized scenic design by Andrea Bush requires very little set change time from scene to scene. It is subtly enhanced by Jessica Trundy’s apt lighting design. Each character is ideally costumed by designer Candace Frank, and Matt Starrit’s sound design was generally satisfactory.
Diamond skillfully walked the comedy/drama tightrope with her script, and I look forward to her future works, as much as I look forward to the rest of Intiman Festival’s season.
Stick Fly from Intiman performs at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, located at 104 17th Ave S. For tickets and more information go to intiman.org.