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Hit making machine

“Motown: The Musical” is the story of the little record label that could, the family-run storefront studio that didn’t have money to buy its stars, so it made them.

And in this bright and loving touring production, oh, how they shine.

The young cast takes the Motown classics that their parents and grandparents grew up with and gives them a fresh spark. They sing them like they’re selling them all over again, and no one listening can refuse to buy.

The show is all about the music – hit after hit after hit – but it gets its bones from the life of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who saw Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling when he was 8 years old and then never stopped swinging for his own piece of the American Dream. The real Gordy was the behind-the-scenes master of Motown; in this show he is front and center, collecting his family of artists, dressing them, coaching them, remaking them and then, in a departure from real life, singing up a storm himself.

On opening night, Jamarice Daughtry stepped up into the lead role in place of regular Clifton Oliver, and he performed it just like Gordy would have: like he had owned it all his life. Daughtry even looks like the young Gordy, a guy who considered a boxing career before getting into the music business.

Except Gordy never had a voice like Daughtry.

He is in good company. A cast of nearly three dozen singers and dancers rotates through scenes as The Four Tops, sounding much like the original; the Temptations, very good but no match for Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin; Jackie Wilson, Gordy’s first singer; Stevie Wonder, sung by a terrific Elijah Ahmad Lewis; the Contours, the Commodores and – cue the applause – a brief appearance by Buffalo’s own Rick James, thanks to a bare-chested Rashad Naylor.

The Motown pantheon is impossible to contain in one show, even one as long as this at 2 hours, 40 minutes. For Gordy, though three artists stand out: Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the love of his life, Diana Ross.

Since the slightly built Allison Semmes resembles Ross physically, it might be thought that is why she has the role – until she opens her mouth. She is a 21st century Ross, perhaps missing some of the purr but bringing along all of the pipes.

The same is true for Jesse Nager’s Smokey Robinson, who plays the great singer songwriter as the true heart of Motown and the truest friend Gordy ever had. His high tenor brings back memories in a rush.

If Robinson is the heart of Motown, Gaye was its soul. The label’s original sex symbol, he became its conscience, fighting with Gordy for the right to record his songs of protest, including the monster hit “What’s Going On.” Jarran Muse resurrects the troubled singer with the style he deserves.

Oh yes, there’s one other little group that Gordy brought along: The Jackson 5. Michael Jackson is played in rotation by Leon Outlaw Jr. and Reed L. Shannon. On opening night, Reed gave it his all, showing a great vocal range, even if it couldn’t match the original’s early, unworldly sweetness.

The show takes us from the Gordy’s beginnings all the way to the famous 25th anniversary celebration of Motown in 1983. Re-creating that bittersweet moment, having gone from Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Brick House” through “My Guy” and “My Girl,” the question of “Where Did Our Love Go” is answered right up on stage, signed sealed and delivered. This music is ours.


3 stars

What: “Motown the Musical”

Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

When: Through Sunday

Tickets: $33 to $78



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