Late Thursday night, as the opening night performance of the return engagement of “Motown: The Musical” was wrapping up, word got out that the production would shutter at the end of this month, instead of its previously announced end date of Nov. 13.
So, what happened? “Motown” ran for two years on Broadway after premiering in the spring of 2013, and it did good business out on the road. (What’s now playing at the Nederlander Theatre is the first national tour.) It is also currently playing in London, where its run has been extended into 2017.
Was it premature to bring the jukebox musical back to Broadway? Was there no time to spread the word about the show’s summertime return? Did the unenthusiastic reviews that greeted the show back in 2013 come back to hurt it?
With a book by Motown founder Berry Gordon, “Motown” observes Gordy (played nicely by Chester Gregory) as a workaholic megaproducer in the 1960s and 1970s as he builds a landmark record company featuring African-American artists, who went on to become major pop stars with crossover appeal.
The storytelling has a passive, paint-by-numbers quality, but you can’t deny the pure entertainment value of Charles Randolph-Wright’s large-scale, movement-intensive production and a score comprised of hit after hit after hit after hit.
The typical jukebox musical works off the songs of a single artist or band, but “Motown” contains an entire catalog of standards made famous by Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye — all of whom are depicted in the show with flare and exuberance.
In retrospect, this unfocused, unwieldy overload works both to the show’s benefit and detriment. The nostalgic fun never stops, but “Motown” never slows down to give its characters more than a purely superficial treatment.
The Motown years — including the artists, racial tensions and financial pressures — can’t be fully explored over the course of a single musical. How about an open-ended television series on the subject?