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Hits and history mix in 'Motown the Musical'

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Krisha Marcano (as Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross), and Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson) in Motown the Musical
PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

As soon as we emerge from the tumult of the '60s and the somewhat understated effects of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, the Jackson 5 are introduced (Reed Shannon plays the young versions of Gordy and Wonder, as well as Michael Jackson), and Ross' solo career advances when she leaves the Supremes. Gordy's master plan to have her sing standards in order to assimilate has often been a point of criticism, not only in this case, but also for his other acts, who have been accused of not being "black enough." Eventually, though, it pays off when she plays grandiose venues that allow for elaborate stage productions. Her subsequent entrance into movie stardom seemed to be something he was grooming her for all along.

Motown revolutionized the world's perceptions of music. Gordy's story is one of success through persistence. Most (if not all) of his label's artists share the same narrative of overcoming obstacles and having to struggle. After all, these were performers who literally had to dodge bullets on stage when they toured the South.

Audience members would be out of touch or ignorant if they couldn't see the modern-day parallels in racial divisions — unrest and outrage over Mike Brown's shooting death by police in Ferguson, Mo., had been going on for about a week at the time of Motown's press night. Viewers may have to ask themselves how much has changed in the last 50 years. That alone could merit this production's cultural relevance, if not some harsh realizations. But I have a feeling most people crave those feel-good hit-factory songs, which do make seeing Motown the Musical worthwhile. *

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL

Through Sept. 28

Tue-Sat, 8pm (also Wed and Sat, 2pm); Sun, 2pm, $45-$210

Orpheum Theatre

1192 Market, SF

www.shnsf.com

 

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