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Musical Roots Make Amazing Comeback in Current Broadway Shows

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Broadway musicals


Musicals stroll down memory lane in several shows playing throughout New York - each reminds us of the roots of many musical genres and transport us back to another era.

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This is not more evident than in "Motown The Musical," which takes us back to the 1ate 1950s and the beginning of the Motown record label. The Tony nominated musical flashes back from Motown's 25th anniversary TV special in 1983 to the record label's beginning. Or at least the beginning according to the man who started the label, Berry Gordy Jr., who also happens to have written the musical's book.

The show is vibrant and exciting and has enough energy to fill a stadium. The costumes and sets are bright and the stars outshine them with many spot-on performances.

In many ways, it feels as if we were there at the beginning with Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. The actors Charl Brown, Bryan Terrell Clark and Felicia Boswell all excel as does the uniformly wonderful cast including Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy.

Not a complete rave, though. Sure the show doesn't feel close to two hours and forty-five minutes and we can easily take with a grain of salt as to whether the story is completely accurate (Gordy paints many of the stars as ungrateful - which could be true, but we only get to hear his side).

But where the show fails is its efforts to cram too many songs in by playing snippets instead of the full songs. There is no way to play every hit from Motown as the catalog is just too large (albeit impressive). So at the same time, it would be hard to make everyone happy as they can't play everyone's favorite tunes - much in the same way people feel when they read a book and a certain segment didn't make it to the movie version. A book is too comprehensive to have every page make it to the screen and Motown the label cannot get every hit into one show.

Perhaps the producers thought they were doing a service in having a few seconds of a lot of songs, but it would have been better to cut out a lot of those scenes..especially in the areas in which songs are used a la jukebox musical in which they try to advance the plot. We've had enough of jukebox musicals and this show dosen't need this gimmick.

The snippets actually worked well once in a wonderful montage in the second act which covers a lot of material in a short time - in the scene in which the audience to the second wave of Motown artists such as the Commodores, Rick James and Teena Marie, who were not there from the beginning but made great additions to the label.

All-in-all and sans the audience thinking this is a real concert (and unfortunately often singing along), "Motown The Musical" is a worthwhile effort but could have been great. I especially want to note that Clark as Marvin Gaye gives a brilliant performance and goes way beyond an impression of the iconic star and Clark finds his own groove within the music and character.

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Going further back in musical history, we're offered a glimpse in the life of Billie Holiday in "Lady Day" featuring a brilliant performance by Dee Dee Bridgewater.

After having seen the glitz and magic of "Motown The Musical" is was equally wonderful to see how a smaller stage and more simplistic set can also carry us back in time - this time to the 1940-50s when Holiday at the peak of her career but struggling with her sobriety.

We first meet Holiday after she's been off drugs for awhile and fights the desire and demons as she and her band work out arrangements in a recording studio. Then, the second act fast forwards to Holiday in London, going on stage after succumbing to the devil in the bottle and does her concert intoxicated.

It's amazing how so much story and character come through in a show that has only two sets and costume changes. We really feel as if we're in the room with Holiday as she tries to hold things together in the first act and feel caught in the crossfire of the second act as she spirals to a dark place.

Bridgewater is nothing short of perfection as she captures the spirit, voice and vulnerability of a star who spend more time fighting for survival then actually overcoming it.

Her stirring performance effects the audience as emotionally as Holiday likely did when she would break down on stage.

See it while you can as "Lady Day" is scheduled to close Jan. 5.

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Further back in the musical time is "After Midnight," a lush and beautifully staged show that has likely the best choreography on Broadway.

Taking us back to 1920s Cotton Club with the music of Duke Ellington, "After Midnight" has dance numbers that create the show's magical core. Yet while the song selection and Langston Hughes prose help transport us back in time, the show comes up a tad short.

Maybe the "short" part is the show's running time of 90 minutes. I am all for a compact show and sometimes welcome it. But "After Midnight" seemed to brisk by too quickly and the part that suffered is actually a plot to a show - or something that would tie things together better instead of feeling like I was watching a series of extremely impressive videos or at a mere concert.

I can't point my finger at anything wrong with the show per se. Loved the music, style and especially director Warren Carlyle's choreography. But the show could have benefited from having a second act, adding more depth to it, creating more a musical and less of a concert.

Still, the show's ever-changing guest star element might keep people coming back and that will likely keep the show fresh. Present guest star Fantasia Barrino demonstrates why she's an "American Idol" winner and current Grammy nominee - her voice is luminous. It reminds us of her star turn on "Idol" when she likely sealed her win with a stirring rendition of "Summertime."

Show star Dule Hill reminds us of his truly diverse talents. TV audience knows him from being a regular on a few network shows (including being Emmy nominated) but his true roots have been musical theatre and he is in fine form here as the show's host.

Another highlight of the show is the quintet of male dancers who work well in unison and add a magical element to the overall production.

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