Last Sunday, July 28 I had the pleasure to attend a special Actors Fund performance of Motown The Musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46 Street.
Like most people, I've always been an ardent fan of the golden age of Motown. It's a matchless catalogue of hits that are still so fresh, so melodic and soulful that they work to lighten your mood faster than a fistful of Xanex.
They're a testament to the sheer genius of African America, too: from the simple to the symphonic, from the playful to the complex critique, from Baby Love to Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler).
Every facet of the transformative decade of the 1960's, from the bubble gum pop to the assassination of civil rights champions can be heard in this music, all the fun, the heartache and the sheer dread. There is no more important show on a Broadway stage right now. You should not miss this.
Motown was a force of change that was absolutely as potent and enduring as the protest marches that hit the streets. But it's not controversial to say that in many ways it was even more so, since it was also an art, and one that brought people together in celebration in a time when so many tried to force them apart.
But since Motown The Broadway musical is based on Motown Svengali Berry Gordy's whirlwind life, the show starts by telling us how inspirational the life of boxer Joe Louis was to the African American community and to Gordy in particular.
If one man could stand up and make such a profound difference what was stopping him he asked himself? Gordy knew he could write hits, and after a few instructive (an exploitative) encounters with white record producers, he decided he could do it on his own.
We watch as Gordy takes out a family loan and sets up the studio that will become HitsVille USA, the nickname given to Motown's first headquarters. That sets the stage for the arrival of his glittering demigods - Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Micheal Jackson and The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Martha and The Vandellas and on and on.
Given the level of the talent involved, Motown The Musical can't fail and it doesn't. Onstage each big musical number blows the roof off the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in a show that's so joyous, and so aware of how central this music is to the era it celebrates, that you'll be moved and at the same time thrilled by the achievement.
Art is often the most potent armor in the arsenal of the oppressed, and you can hear how deep that oppression was in the unforgettable songs and artistry of the community that stood up to defy it. Motown was music but it was also a movement, and there isn't another community in America that achieved more with less, frankly. It's a staggering cultural moment and it's time that it was celebrated on a Broadway stage.
Bryan Terrell Clark is a reincarnation of Marvin Gaye, his performance and his vocal stylings are peerless. Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson reminds you why the Motown sound was an unstoppable force. Brandon Victor Dixon as Berry Gordy is ideally cast as the show's lead and brings the house down with each dedicated number. And Valisia LeKae excels as Miss Ross, bringing pathos and context to the whole show and helping it take flight it from her first scene.
As a grateful guest of Actors Fund President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph P. Benincasa, known everywhere as Joe, the hardest working man in show business, I was lucky enough to be present on a night when the Broadway community celebrates itself as much as the music.
The Actors Fund is a nationwide organization that helps all professionals in performing arts by providing a safety net in an often precarious profession, by providing programs and services for those who are in need, in crisis or transition.
To support its work the cast and crew of Motown The Musical worked for free and the performance I caught was a benefit, which is absolutely within the spirit of Motown itself (which always kept a weather eye on the social progress it reflected and often led). It was the perfect coming together of a show and an organization.
If you want to be reminded just how unforgettably the imagination can press back against the hard facts of life; if you need another primer on the power of music to withstand oppression - or if you just want to have one of the best nights you'll ever have at a musical, get along to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre as soon as you can.
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