Month: January 2014

Motown: The Musical (Review)

The first time I ever played a record on my own was in 1972, when my parents bought me a compact record player that, when closed, could not be distinguished from a suitcase.  Since I didn’t yet have any records of my own, I went to their collection and played a 45 of “Love Child” by The Supremes. On that day I became a life-long fan of The Supremes, Diana Ross and the now legendary Motown sound.Love Child 45 Record

Over the last couple of years several Broadway productions have been mounted that pay tribute to favorite singers of mine, most notably, A Night With Janis Joplin and Forever Dusty. I have been hesitant about seeing these shows because I never saw these singers live. Of course I have seen videos, but they simply do not compare to seeing and hearing someone sing live. I feel a little left out. I remember being awed by a video of Janis Joplin’s electric performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Interestingly, someone filmed Mamma Cass Elliot’s (who was an awesome singer in her own right) reaction to Joplin’s performance and she is visibly blown away, her lips silently saying, “Wow!” I initially had mixed feelings when my sister, a fellow Motown devotee, gave me tickets to see Motown: The Musical. I wish I could have seen Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and, of course, The Supremes live. Regardless of what I missed, I went in with an open heart and mind and was not disappointed.

Motown: The Musical explores a uniquely American institution, and its role in history.  Motown’s cultural contributions are enormous and this show bears that out.  Perhaps Motown’s greatest contribution is the way music brought people together; blacks and whites loved the music. The show does not shy away from issues like racism, segregation, poverty and war; in fact, the manner in which they are addressed felt quite germane. This was perhaps best depicted through Marvin Gaye’s timeless classic, “What’s Going On” —which was beautifully sung and performed by Jarran Muse, who magnificently captured Gaye’s sensuality, sensitivity and vocal power.

The actress playing Diana Ross, Felicia Boswell, had some big high-heel stilettos to fill. While she does not look like Diana Ross (many of the actors bore little physical resemblance to the people they were playing), she remarkably managed to capture the essence of Ross’ singing voice and, to an extent, her vibrant charisma. One of the most memorable moments is when the show re-enacts Ross’ first solo concert without The Supremes: singing “Reach Out and Touch” Boswell ventures into the audience bringing people on stage to sing with her. I have had debates with people who criticize Ross’ singing voice as weak—yes, it is not as strong as some of her contemporaries, but it is still rich, layered and vastly expressive. I have always been moved by her sincere singing in songs like “Mahogany” and “Touch me in the Morning.” Then there is Ross’ undeniable presence and star power—Boswell partially captures this, but “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

One of my favorite moments was when the audience meets The Jackson 5 for the first time.  Raymond Luke, who played Michael Jackson, was nothing short of remarkable. The audience reaction was equally stunning: it was almost as if a young Michael Jackson was really up on the stage! Perhaps the most unexpected moment was when the audience meets Rick James, played with absolute bravado by Eric LaJuan Summers. All I can say is that you have to see it for yourself.

I was quite disturbed by Tracy McDowell’s attempt to recreate Teena Marie’s singing—-get a better singer or cut this song out!  Another curious moment is when Florence Ballard (Allison Semmes) begins behaving unpredictably and Berry Gordy, ( Brandon Victor Dixon) says, “The pressure of fame is vicious. Not everyone can go the distance.” I could have sworn I heard a few bars of “And I am Telling You”, from Dreamgirls, played on the piano.

The show makes good use of the stage, successfully integrating set pieces with video. The costumes were colorful without losing period authenticity.  The orchestra captured the Motown sound, making excellent use of tambourines, melodic electric bass-guitar lines, and orchestral strings.

Overall, I enjoyed Motown: The Musical and recommend seeing it. The music, singing and acting were excellent.  However, at times it feels like there is too much crammed into this show. Gordy, who wrote the show’s book, seemed determined to mention every act from Motown’s long roster. Gladys Knight and the Pips were only with the label briefly, considered second string and found their greatest success after leaving Motown.  Yet, they surprisingly make a brief appearance in this show. More than 50 songs are performed, many abridged, with the best presented in concert.

Gordy’s story is Motown’s story and both are truly notable and should be depicted onstage. However this show doesn’t quite do the story justice. Ultimately, this show is about great songs that have stood the test of time and will likely not be thought of in the context of this show.  The songs, and those who sang them, firmly stand on their own.

Playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan, (877) 250-2929, http://www.motownthemusical.com/. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

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A New Year in New York City.

Empire State BuildingA new year in New York City and a new mayor. Good riddance to the Giuliani / Bloomberg era! Like two ravenous vampires, they both managed to suck out the personality of New York City. Vibrant nightlife is gone. And while the drugs and prostitution in Times Square was cleaned up, the corporate mindset that has taken over that area has spread to other parts of the city: Starbucks, banks and other corporations continue to devour real estate while concurrently killing local and ethnic flavors ( http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/farewell-to-big-nicks-burger-joint/?_r=0 ). Manhattan, and any area surrounding it, has essentially become a gated community for the rich. I am fairly certain that if Bloomberg had decided to serve another term or two, he would have gotten to “work” on the public housing that occupies some of the most expensive real estate in the borough. Eyes open—that can still happen!

Perhaps the greatest causalities of the Giuliani / Bloomberg era has been the working class, the poor and people of color. The constant “reforms” to education, which were, in part, veiled attempts at union busting and budget cutting, resulted in nothing but an overuse of standardized tests that kill critical thinking and gave rise to the charter school. Charter schools appear to work because students are hand picked; what happens to poor children who need extensive help with academics? Giuliani was very critical of remediation in CUNY, but never mentioned that the students who needed remediation came from a public school system that has been hemorrhaging for decades. There is always money to give tax cuts to businesses that barely pay living wage, but never enough to fund education.

The worst legacy of this era has been the stop and frisk policy: it mirrors the failure of the national war on drugs. Quite simply, the numbers don’t add up. It is a fiasco. See for yourself here: http://stopandfriskinfo.org/ . I would also recommend watching this: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/ .

I was inspired to write this because the Rupert Murdoch “news “outlets in New York City are already drumming up the fear and selling the idea that New York City will revert to the way it was in the 1970’s. Let’s be clear on why New York got to that point. Individuals like Robert Moses siphoned monetary resources out of the City to build up the surrounding suburbs. The Cross-Bronx does not benefit the Bronx—it destroyed the Bronx! People once lived there. Industry fled for various reasons. The middle and working classes / tax base left the city and the poor and people of color moved into their former neighborhoods, which were subsequently red-lined. Harlem had been red lined since the 1920’s. The media has portrayed people of color as gun totting, drug-using savages who burn and vandalize their neighborhoods. They are portrayed as bad for real estate. The fact is that landlords of these redlined areas paid arsons so that they could collect insurance.
The New York City of today is in better financial shape. Yes, Giuliani and Bloomberg were instrumental in fostering business, but have the returns benefited everyone? If they did, our public schools would be in better shape, public transportation would be cheaper and there would be more real estate for the middle and working classes as well as the poor. I have high hopes that Mayor DiBlasio can bring some balance.

UPDATE:

Some additional resources and reading:
– The chapter from Robert Caro’s Pulitzer winning book, The Power Broker, that explores the Cross Bronx: http://dcrit.sva.edu/view/readingroom/the-power-broker-one-mile/

– A PBS documentary on Robert Moses. This part looks at the Cross Bronx and is an excellent companion to the above chapter from The Power Broker. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko3DQiioGos

– The 7th episode of Ric Burn’s masterpiece documentary on New York City explores a lot of what I discussed up above including the hired arsons in the Bronx: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko3DQiioGos

– A 1980 article from The Village Voice on the arsons of the Bronx. http://www.villagevoice.com/2005-10-18/specials/arson-for-hire/

SECOND UPDATE:

This is a good companion to what I discussed in this posting: http://gothamist.com/2014/01/05/6926_years_of_nyc_history_disappear.php

THIRD UPDATE:

This article illustrates what I am talking about in this blog entry. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/nyregion/they-kept-a-lower-east-side-lot-vacant-for-decades.html?emc=edit_ur_20140323&nl=nyregion&nlid=55058713&_r=0