“Motown is the soundtrack of people’s lives,” intoned Mack Leamon in his portrayal of legendary Motown record label founder Berry Gordy in Director/Writer/Choreographer Kashi-Tara’s musical Heard It Through the Grapevine – A Tribute to Motown. This show is a hip-shaking, foot-stomping trip down the highway to Hitsville, U.S.A.—one of the best musicals I’ve seen this year.
The storyline that supported the music was not as detailed as the one in Center Stage’s SOUL The Stax Musical; the history of Motown is well documented. The show’s timeline started June 27, 1988, as Berry Gordy is on the eve of signing away the rights to the label he founded. From there, the show went back in time several decades and touched on the high and low points of Motown, from William Robinson aka Smokey Robinson meeting Gordy, to the stormy romance of David Ruffin and Tammi Terrell, to the infamous quality control sessions, in which the recording artists would grade each others singing; many of the show’s musical numbers took place during those.
Music Director Angela Walker and the Funk Brothers (Motown Studio Band), which consisted of Calvin Clifton on bass; Marlon Scott on guitar; John Chandler on drums, and Walker on keys, laid a magical, musical foundation for the phenomenal cast to sing over.
The duet “You’re All I Need to Get By,” sung by Edward Byrd, who played Marvin Gaye, and the lovely Jasmine Prather, who played Tammi Terrell, was pure soul dynamite. Byrd and Prather’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was unforgettable. The two actors did a good job conveying the brother-sister-like dynamic between Gaye and Terrell, who had an abusive relationship with David Ruffin (the terrific Joseph Johnson Jr.).
The amazing Makayla Jones, as the young King of Pop, Michael Jackson, committed first-degree stage theft with her renditions of “ABC” and “One More Chance.” Tanea Johnson’s portrayal of Mary Wells was brash, bold and beautiful. She sang “Bye Bye Baby” and “You Beat Me to the Punch” with panache.
The Temptations’ “Get Ready” got the audience into a nostalgic frenzy, as sung by Johnson Jr. as Ruffin; Don Dillingham as Paul Williams; Bobby Jaye as Otis Williams; Kashi-Tara as Melvin Franklin and April Rich as Eddie Kendricks.
Diana Ross was embodied in style and grace by Zorah Love, who had a good solo in the Supremes’ (formerly The Primettes) “Stop in the Name of Love.” Love was well supported by Christina Carter’s strong pipes as Florence Ballard and Laurie Smith as Mary Wilson. Who could have sung Martha Reeves’ “Jimmy Mack” any better than Rolanda Carter?
Vermonica Thomas was fantastic as Claudette Rogers, wife of Smokey Robinson, who was played in a brainy-songwriter-like tone by Khalid Alzouma. Alzouma’s sister Amina played Raynoma Gordy, Berry’s wife. Raynoma, who was responsible for teaching music theory to Motown artists, had to deal with Gordy’s wandering eye—especially when it focused on Diana Ross.
The always magnificent Leamon, recently seen in Stick Fly, played Gordy as the mastermind, ex-boxer perfectionist he was. In a scene that took place during a 3 a.m. recording session, Leamon’s Gordy said: “The beat is not right. If 200 times is not enough, we’ll do a thousand.”
Lena Choudhary’s set design included an impressive “Hitsville U.S.A.” sign that hung from the rafters, an upstage recording equipment facade, and a stage right mini-office, among other authentic touches. The period costumes evoked the spirit of the ’60s, thanks to Joylisa Williams-Smith. The women’s wigs in the show were impressive thanks to Serena Hill’s makeup and hair design.
Musicals this good rarely get made. With performances that bring a plethora of human emotions out of the audience, Heard It Through the Grapevine – A Tribute to Motown is a show you’ll want to see many times over.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Heard It Through the Grapevine – A Tribute to Motown, presented by the City of Gaithersburg in partnership with The Finest! Performance Foundation, Inc., plays through July 22, 2018, at the Arts Barn – 311 Kent Square Road in Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets and information call the Arts Barn at (301) 258-6394, or purchase tickets online.