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Hit Parade

A celebratory musical paying tribute to the African-American music explosion led by Berry Gordy’s Detroit label, Motown: The Musical is more than just a fabulous songbook.

Rachel Wright
February 15, 2017

Motown: The Musical will play at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center for a limited engagement of eight performances March 14-19. The nationally touring Broadway performers bring their interpretations of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye to the stage for the first time in Tulsa.

With over 40 classic songs including “My Girl,” “What’s Going On,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” this emotional and inspiring performance tells the story behind the hits as the Motown family broke barriers and shaped American culture forever through music.

Motown: The Musical is told through the eyes of Berry Gordy, Jr.,” says David Kaverman, who plays Smokey Robinson. “The story follows Berry and Smokey as they meet Diana Ross and beyond. The musical spans 50 years of Motown music, and tells a lot of the backstories that people might not know. It’s Berry’s legacy. It’s truth.”

Motown has become a term to represent an era, a genre of music, a lifestyle and a city, but was first the name of a record company, founded by Gordy first as Tamla Records in 1958 and incorporated as Motown Record Corporation two years later, in Detroit, Mich. The name is a hybrid of the words “motor” and “town,” as an ode to its birthplace where the three biggest producers of automobiles were at the time. Motown Records’ influence on Detroit was so big, the town is even referred to as, Hitsville U.S.A. after a sign that read as such which Gordy hung above the front window of Motown Records’ headquarters. For many decades, Motown was the highest-earning African-American business in the United States.

Gordy became a professional songwriter at the urging of his friend, Robinson, who was Motown’s first artist, and had the first Motown Records single to hit No. 1: “Shop Around” by The Miracles, Robinson’s band before going solo.

The musical spans 50 years of Motown music, and tells a lot of the backstories that people might not know. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“Smokey was with Motown at the beginning,” says Kaverman. “I learned a lot about him to prepare for this. He’s a legend, a singer and the soul of Motown. He wrote their company song and wrote music for many of the artists. He was also VP of Motown, so that’s why he’s so featured in the show, because he was such a big part of the story.”

Motown: The Musical tells the story of Motown Records’ bold music at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The black-owned business promoting African-American singers and songwriters, many say, helped propel the country beyond the days of Jim Crow.

“What inspires me the most is that this story is real. Everything we’re doing really happened,” says Kaverman. “This is a show that I’ve always wanted to be a part of, so to finally get to do it is an honor.” 

As if being able to pay tribute to these brave trailblazers isn’t an honor in itself, the cast of 29 had the incredible opportunity to learn from the man who wrote the book and lived the story — Berry Gordy, Jr. himself.

“This is his brainchild,” says Kaverman. “He literally wrote the book.”

The musical recently toured to Los Angeles, where Kaverman and the cast got to meet some of the legends they’re portraying.

“I met Smokey Robinson and I got to perform for him,” says Kaverman. “That was such a surreal moment. I’ve studied him so much. Berry Gordy says the most, though. There’s really a funny line in the show when Diana [Ross] says to Berry, ‘you’re giving us notes, notes, notes. Always notes.’ So our cast has playfully adopted that line. But that’s why the show keeps getting better. He always has notes for us. He’s really complimentary and he’s happy with where we are.”

Motown: The Musical is produced by Tony Award winning producer Kevin McCollum (Rent, In the Heights, Avenue Q), chairman and CEO of SONY Music Entertainment Doug Morris, and Gordy.

It features choreography by Patricia Wilcox (A Night with Janis Joplin) and Warren Adams (Toy Story), scenic design by David Korins (Bring It On: The Musical, Annie), costume design by Tony Award nominee Emilio Sosa (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Project Runway), lighting design by Tony Award winner Natasha Katz (Once, Sister Act), sound design by Tony Award nominee Peter Hylenski (Rock of Ages, The Scottsboro Boys), projection design by Daniel Brodie (Jekyll and Hyde), and hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe (Memphis).

Motown: The Musical’s arrangements and orchestrations are by Grammy and Tony Award nominee Ethan Popp (Rock of Ages), with co orchestrations and additional arrangements by Tony Award nominee Bryan Crook (Smash) and dance arrangements by Zane Mark (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).

“It’s great to be part of a show that really brings people together,” says Kaverman. “It’s a story of love. For me, this came at such a good time because we can do this show and provide some entertainment, but also a message. We’re all people and we all just need to love each other.”

Motown: The Musical
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
March 14-16: 7:30 p.m.
March 17: 8 p.m.
March 18: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
March 19: 2 p.m., 7 p.m.