Review: ‘Motown the Musical’ has the moves and grooves

“Motown the Musical” is at the Durham Performing Arts Center this week, and it’ll make you want to get out your old Motown records. Packed with song after song from the Detroit-forged record company, “Motown” is a tour through the musical eras of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s featuring The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops and many, many more. The national tour of the musical is at DPAC through Sunday, Aug. 6.

On opening night Tuesday, one of North Carolina’s own gave a stellar performance as Marvin Gaye. Malcolm Armwood, an East Carolina University alum, stepped into the role for Jarran Muse. On most nights, Armwood is in the roles of Levi Stubbs, Mickey Stevenson, Contour, the Jackson 5 and Rick James. If that sounds like a lot of roles for one person, it is. The ensemble all perform in multiple roles, one after another, dancing and singing with energy throughout. And who is the dance captain who makes sure all that goes smoothly? Another man from North Carolina, Rod Harrelson, who was a cheerleader at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1990s.

Led by Berry Gordy, who wrote the book for the show, the real Motown had a calvacade of singers come through the record label producing hit after hit. “Motown” brings audiences so many of those hits, from “Stop! In the Name of Love” to “Shop Around” to “Super Freak.” Chester Gregory is convincing as Gordy and David Kaverman embodies Smokey Robinson. The opening number medley of songs that quickly reminds you how much of our American pop culture is because of Motown.

What it also does is show the rest of America during that era, too, including the racism of the Jim Crow South. The scenic design illustrates an artists tour down South with black and white images of segregation. And the worst one is part of this state’s shameful history. One photo is of the Ku Klux Klan billboard announcing its “Klan country” presence in North Carolina. So there are several sobering moments amid the lively dance songs, reminding us about what was actually going on at the same time as the rise of Motown.

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (Armwood on Tuesday night) is one of the best songs of the musical, maybe because its message is such a classic, and relevant then as much as it is today.

While “Motown” brings up nostalgia for times audiences remember hearing those songs in their own lives, it will likely also bring in new fans. And while it’s a musical, it’s based on reality, down to the replicated outfits worn at the 25th anniversary Motown show and Diana Ross’ concerts. There’s a moment with Ross (Allison Semmes, who does a beautiful job) singing “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” that involves the entire DPAC audience. And Semmes as Ross invites an audience member or two to sing along, which garnered much applause on opening night for a woman from New Bern and man from Jacksonville who took to the spotlight with enthusiasm.

“Motown” is a welcome addition to the stage for August, but it’s only here through Sunday. Already its second visit to Durham, now’s the time to see it.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan


WHAT: “Motown The Musical”

WHEN: Through Sunday, Aug. 6

WHERE: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham

TICKETS: dpacnc.com