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THEATER REVIEW: "Motown: The Musical"

The Motown sound, made famous in Detroit in the late 1960s by Berry Gordy (who started his own record label because no established record publisher or radio station would give his artists a go), became legendary, and gave us the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Jackson 5.

It wasn’t easy. Racism was a major obstacle and “What makes you think white people will buy your music?” the prominent attitude. But Gordy succeeded, and his artists created some of the biggest hits of all time.

Here’s your chance to relive those years, even get in a little audience participation with “Motown: The Musical,” on tour through Sunday at at San Diego Civic Theatre.

Based on Gordy’s autobiography, “Motown” lists more than 50 songs in alphabetical order (a bane to the likes of reviewers like me whose memory is faulty). The problem with this approach is that few songs get the full treatment, and the show is more of an extensive (nearly three-hour) medley, the songs shoehorned around skimpily-presented historical facts.

Still, the music is infectious, the performers terrific, and the energetic choreography (by Patricia Wilcox & Warren Adams) has to bring a smile.

Allison Semmes has the look and the pipes to play Diana Ross, and for my money is even better as Billie Holiday (when she is cast in the film “Lady Sings The Blues”).

Julius Thomas III is excellent as promoter/songwriter/singer Gordy, the man who made music history and brought the races together as no one else could.

Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye bring their characters (and voices) to life with fine portrayals.

But my favorite is Reed L. Shannon, the 14-year-old dynamo who lit up the stage as the very young Michael Jackson (and also played the young Berry Gordy and Stevie Wonder) last night. These roles are triple-cast, so your mileage may vary, but Shannon is a real find.

Technically, this show is a find for those with short attention spans. There is so much going on, so many set pieces seemingly in constant motion and video projections that the senses are saturated (credit set designer David Korins and projection designer Daniel Brodie). Esosa’s costumes are fabulous as well, and Natasha Katz’s lighting design is especially effective.

A caveat for sensitive ears: This show is LOUD. Even with earplugs. But I seem to have been the only person who noticed that.

The details

“Motown: The Musical” plays through June 14, at San Diego Civic Theatre, 3rd and B Streets, downtown.

Showtimes are: Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm.

Tickets: Click HERE or (619) 570-1100

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.