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Theater review: 'A Motown Christmas'

The gospel according to Motown

Photo by Don Daly
Photo by Don Daly
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Detroit is 3,302 miles from the North Pole, and Santa’s sled wasn’t made in Motor City. But that doesn’t stop the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe from putting a Motown spin on the holiday spirit with their current revue — “A Motown Christmas.”

Nate Jacobs conceived, created and directs the show. Music director James E. Dodge II and choreographer Donald Frison handle the song and dance.

While the show isn’t televised, it has the vibe of an old-school Christmas special. Although the revue offers a nod to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, this isn’t “Motown Holidays.” Christmas is what it’s all about—a blend of Motown hits and Christmas standards. These may seem like an odd bedfellows, granted the sensual Motown mojo. But it actually works in practice. In the first act, the stocking is stuffed with secular holiday standards (or overlooked songs that should be standards) and chart-toppers by The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and other Motown legends. Christmas carols dominate the second act.

Photo by Don Daly
Photo by Don Daly

The singing, dancing ensemble is consistently first-rate. Ariel Blue, Mandi Jo John and MaRah Williams are the female talent. Christopher Eisenberg, Nate Jacobs Michael Mendez, Leon S. Pitts II and Sheldon Rhoden supply the male half of the equation. (Josh Thompson and Derric Gobourne Jr. don’t sing, but they can definitely dance.) Seen only in silhouette behind the stage, the band sizzles and cooks—and gets everybody moving. Dodge (aka the music director) plays bass guitar, accompanied by pianist Todd Bellamy, keyboardist J.L. Cash Jr., drummer Sheldon Graham and lead guitarist Willie Thompson.

Under Jacobs’ direction, this talented team pumps out the joy with no weak links or dead moments. As an ensemble, the performers hum like a precision watch, matching flawless vocals with the high-energy, crisp choreography that Motown’s musicians were famous for. Kudos to Frison for the electrifying, precision dance moves and to Dodge for fine musical direction. Bad arrangements can turn great talent into musical mush. Here, despite the powerhouse band, the singer’s voices ring out loud and clear. You can hear every word and savor every note. Bravo.

Photo by Don Daly
Photo by Don Daly

It’s one great performance after another, from the male performers spot-on recreation of The Tempations’ music and choreography, to the female performers’ supreme homage to The Supremes, to MaRah Williams rendition of “My Christmas Tree” (an ode to a bedraggled tree only Charlie Brown could love), to dancers Thompson and Gobourne’s mercurial moves on “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer” and “Little Drummer Boy.” Costume designer Cristy Owen supplies the wrapping—Rudolph-red evening dresses for the women and spangled vests for the men. Scenic designer Michael Newton-Brown decks the stage with giant presents, Christmas paraphernalia, and the bright shining “M” of the Motown logo above it all.

If you’re feeling the holiday blues, this revue is just what the doctor ordered. Whatever your mood when you came in, you’ll leave with a smile on your face. The Grinch himself would get the Christmas spirit. 


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