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Review: Thin plot aside, 'Motown: The Musical' is a fun singalong

“Motown The Musical” proves that a solid book isn’t necessary to make an entertaining jukebox musical.

From the top, the sounds of one of music’s greatest periods fill the Boston Opera House in full volume, at dizzying speed, making it nearly impossible to sit still. The Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and a young Michael Jackson are re-enacted with a winning authenticity.

This near-sensory overload musical experience is strung together by the story of Berry Gordy’s creation of the Detroit hit-factory label, Motown. Unfortunately, the book was penned by Gordy, so he is portrayed as a near saint-like character who ends up a victim of the greed and lack of gratitude of the artists he made famous. “Dreamgirls,” a musical about Diana Ross and the Supremes, has a much different take on Gordy’s probity, but the reality is probably somewhere in the middle.

Whatever Gordy’s truth is, the fact remains that his Motown was a veritable machine, and this show pumps truncated versions of more than 40 of its biggest hits courtesy of a very talented ensemble.

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Julius Thomas III delivers an impressive turn as the Motown founder in spite of the script’s intermittent hokeyness, (a momentary bout of impotence that left Diana Ross singing “Whenever I’m near you, I hear a symphony,” is especially cringe-worthy). Marvin Gaye’s equally awkward reference to his father (who later killed the singer) is another weird moment that was mercifully overshadowed by Jarran Muse’s powerful rendition of “What’s Going On.”

If you’ve ever seen Diana Ross perform live, you will be awestruck by Allison Semmes’ brilliant embodiment of the diva’s gooey, contrived, audience participatory shtick. Semmes floats down the aisle just like Ross does to the strains of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and later works the crowd to “Reach Out and Touch.”

Even Rick James and Ed Sullivan enjoy cameos in this mammoth production, but it’s really all about the big guns, like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

If you go

“Motown The Musical”

Through Feb. 15

Boston Opera House

539 Washington St., Boston

Tickets start at $43

800-982-2787

www.BroadwayInBoston.com

 
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