Clifton Oliver and Allison Semmes play Berry Gordy and Diana Ross in the lively “Motown The Musical.”
“Montage” is the operative word to describe “Motown The Musical,” the show based on the life of mogul Berry Gordy, whose Detroit record company featuring great black artists revolutionized pop music.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, written by Gordy and based on his 1994 memoir, the nearly three-hour show — onstage at the Orpheum Theatre — covers a lot of ground, sometimes hastily, with a check-the-box feel.
But, oh, what boxes they are, and the amazing hits, around five dozen, don’t stop coming.
Some are slightly lesser known, such as songwriter Gordy’s earliest tunes written for Jackie Wilson (“Reet Petite”) and the Contours (“Do You Love Me”) to smashes by Smokey Robinson (“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”) and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Stop in the Name of Love” for the Supremes.
Gordy’s professional and personal association with his young protege, the Supremes’ Diana Ross, is the one relationship that doesn’t get short shrift. Clifton Oliver as Gordy and Allison Semmes as Ross ably develop their characters, revealing how the super producer created, and loved, his superstar singer (a scene in Las Vegas where Gordy pays audience members $20 to see Ross in her solo debut is priceless) who eventually left him.
The show opens on that sentiment, as Gordy, frustrated because many of his top musicians have left the label for more money, contemplates whether he will attend a 25th anniversary television special featuring Motown stars through the years.
That TV show’s battle of the bands between The Four Tops and The Temptations gets this musical off to a great start, knocking out snippets of soul hits at breakneck (perhaps too fast) speed before reverting to Gordy’s beginnings: his love of boxing and songwriting, the $800 loan from his family that started his company, his meeting Robinson, and later, the many artists and business people (a few are white) who made Motown grow at a time of segregation and then civil unrest. Later comes a move to California and economic struggles with a changing music industry.
With its spot-on period costumes from the late 1950s through the ’80s, and a dynamic set design that brings to life the “Hitsville U.S.A.” Motown studio and incorporates colorful video graphics and real photos from the era, “Motown The Musical” looks great and is fast-paced.
The first national touring company’s energetic ensemble of 20 portrays nearly 100 characters, to dizzying effect, though the story’s slight focus on the sexy, wild Marvin Gaye (an excellent Jarran Muse) and the origins of the Jackson 5 goes a long way.
Sadly, Stevie Wonder mostly shows up in the finale, singing “I Wish” with the company. On Tuesday’s opening night, the real Berry Gordy thrillingly joined the ensemble, telling the audience, “I’m blessed, the luckiest person in the world” as the elated crowd grooved, embodying Motown’s signature, inclusive, world-changing call for dancing in the street.
Motown The Musical
Presented by SHN
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 28
Tickets: $40 to $210
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com