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Apr 29, 2018

Motown: Opening Night

A mega-montage of Motown hits could stand alone on a bare stage with concert lighting. People around the world have made that a fact for decades. But what's going on this weekend at the Lexington Opera House is much more than that.

MOTOWN: The Musical is a spectacle to behold. Costumes dripping in sparkles and sheen, choreography sizzling with bumps and grinds, technology haunting our memories with historic images of the assassination of hope and the carnage of war. It's a trippy trip you'll be glad you took.

It's all based on Berry Gordy's autobiography, "To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown". While a similarly biographical musical Jersey Boys, that played here earlier this season, told the story of The Four Seasons from various perspectives, Motown is Mr. Gordy's version of his. Those familiar with the comings and goings of Motown will discern pretty quickly that this particular evening gives the founder the upper hand.

The show begins in Pasadena as stars are gathering for a reunion of sorts, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the record label. One person who is none too excited about the whole affair, which is to be televised as a tribute to him, is the man himself. Berry Gordy feels betrayed by so many of the artists that he cultivated, who have since left his record label for greener, more lucrative pastures.

The story shifts into flashback mode: Gordy's childhood, his family and influences in Detroit, the building of his empire, its demise, and the eventual reinvention that leads to the Pasadena celebration. One criticism the show has consistently received over the years is just: there's a LOT of story to tell, and the dialogue here, while important, I suppose in a biographical sense, has a tendency at times to get in the way of the music we came for.

That doesn't stop the show from serving up over 50 Motown hits, amazingly performed by one the best ensemble casts to grace the Opera House stage in years. The show spins through more than two hours of classics: Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, and many (MANY) more.

One of the most historically significant things about Motown, of course, is the evolutionary revolution it brought to popular music and culture. It was a time when "white" radio stations were reluctant to play any kind of music by black artists. At one point, a radio DJ tells Gordy, "We don't play race music," and he replies, "My audience is all around the world." The DJ counters, "What makes you think white people will buy your music?" Mr. Gordy: "It's what's in the groove that counts." Well, we know how that turned out. Just look around at the nearly sold out crowds this weekend at the Opera House.

Place your bets next week in Louisville, but the sure winner this weekend is right here. Get your groove on, Lexington!