When we first meet Berry Gordy in "Motown the Musical," he's a bitter guy refusing to go to the 25th anniversary celebration of his music label, his monster hits and the artists he nurtured. Not only did these people abandon him for bigger careers but, he grumbles unattractively, "If they love me so much, why don't they mention me?" when they get honored on TV.
Since this autobiographical jukebox musical is written and co-produced by Gordy himself, we wince and brace ourselves for more score-settling than music-making. To his credit, however, the generously cast, terrifically dressed show has lots of enthusiastically performed chunks of songs -- almost 60 of them by faux-Vandellas, Supremes, Commodores, and The Jackson Five -- that made an irresistible sound track of the '60s and '70s.
And his book, though clunky and schematic and much too long, is not entirely a cornball tribute to his noble self. Despite the fine Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy, we don't feel much of anything for the impresario and sometimes songwriter who, inspired as a kid by black boxing champ Joe Louis, borrows $800 from his loving family in Detroit and builds a music empire.
The show makes "Jersey Boys" seem like Shakespeare. But the songs are the draw here and, no doubt, the reason for the show's impressive advance sale. Gordy manages to integrate dozens of characters and varied iconic choreography in a compressed once-over-lightly history of race, politics and music from Detroit to L.A., from 1957 to 1983.
Also to his credit, Gordy and director Charles Randolph-Wright haven't just cast sound-alikes or look-alikes to play the dozens of stars, which keeps this from being another wax museum of depressing clones. Valisia LeKae doesn't look a bit like Diana Ross, Gordy's teen protégé and later lover, but her style feels right. Charl Brown has the lyric sweetness of Smokey Robinson. Bryan Terrell Clark is powerfully insinuating as Marvin Gaye. N'Kenge has such big lungs and attitude as Mary Wells that we regret she disappears early in the show.
Raymond Luke, Jr., captures young Michael Jackson's quicksilver moves and preternatural confidence like a natural. And how nice, really, to hear pop music free of embellishments by "American Idol" screamers.
WHAT "Motown: The Musical"
WHERE Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.
INFO $57-$142; 866-276-4887; motownthemusical.com
BOTTOM LINE Clunky book, lightweight history, beloved songs