The song's the thing in "Motown: The Musical."
The hit records, and the artists who made them, are the power source driving this frenetic jukebox musical based on the life and times of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Drawn from Gordy's 1994 memoir, and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, the Broadway show, which made its much-anticipated San Francisco premiere at the Orpheum Theatre Tuesday evening, delivers an eminently theatrical mixtape of irresistible tunes.
And what tunes they are. There are nearly 60 represented in "Motown" -- from "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" to "My Girl" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." The list goes on and on, and the opening night audience, which included the real-life Berry Gordy, seemed to know them all by heart.
If the show centers on the songs, it also sketches out Gordy's life story. It begins on the eve of Motown's 25th anniversary, with Gordy (Clifton Oliver), peeved that many of his top artists have moved on to other labels, wondering whether he should attend the celebration.
From there, the action loops back to Gordy's Detroit childhood (his family calls him "Junior") and his dream of following in the footsteps of the great African-American boxer, Joe Louis.
By the time he's a young man, Gordy has failed as an athlete, a salesman, and an autoworker, but he borrows $800 from his family to launch Hitsville U.S., the scrappy startup that morphs into the biggest independent label in the record business.
How it gets there is both musical history and the theatrical framework on which Gordy, Randolph-Wright, and music director Darryl Archibald hang the songs.
Gordy scores his first hit as a songwriter. In a bar, he meets Jackie Wilson (Rashad Naylor, in a crimson sharkskin suit) and hands him a score; the singer promptly gives it a go-for-broke performance. In short order, Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Christopher, who nails Robinson's high falsetto and requisite throb) and Marvin Gaye (a sexy, urgent Jarran Muse) arrive on the scene.
Martha Reeves (an energized Patrice Covington) raises the temperature with "Dancin' in the Streets," while the dulcet-toned Supremes, led by Diana Ross (a silky Allison Semmes) are brought into the fold. Mary Wells (big-voiced Martina Sykes) burns through "Two Lovers" and "My Guy." And when the pint-size Michael Jackson (a spot-on Reed L. Shannon) introduces "ABC," you can almost hear the gold records being pressed.
As the roster grows, so does Motown's reach. Soon Gordy is sending artists into the segregated South, where the local cops come onstage with the singers during Freedom Summer ("I think they thought we were freedom riders," says Robinson; "Maybe we should be," replies Gaye.) The sound of soul begins to break the color bar on radio as the groups tour to England and France.
Like many biographical dramas, "Motown" seems to magnify some parts of the story while skimming over others. Some songs are presented in mere snippets, while Gordy's romantic relationship with Ross consumes a lot of stage time. It's fun to watch Ross achieve diva status, but her audience participation number feels padded; meanwhile, other major artists, such as Stevie Wonder, get short shrift. The show nods to the politics of the era, yet Gordy's own politics are never made clear (Gaye's "Mercy Mercy," in contrast, has never sounded so timely.)
The show is visually kinetic, with vibrant choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. The chief flaw is the dialogue. It's often clumsy; in one scene, Diana and Berry are in bed, apparently unable to make love. "At least you have the power over everything else," says Diana, before launching, inexplicably, into "I Hear a Symphony."
Still, there's no denying the sheer jubilance, and the enduring power, of the music Gordy ushered into the world. To hear these hits sung with such conviction is simply to experience their impact all over again. "Motown: The Musical" isn't a perfect show. But the songs speak for themselves.
'MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL'
Based on the memoir "To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown," by Berry Gordy
Through: Sept. 28
Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $45-$210, 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com