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Before we’ve even settled in our seats, we’re being dazzled by a sing-off between the Four Tops and the Temptations. Gladys Knight and the Pips and Marvin Gaye later tear into their dueling versions of the enduring classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” (Don’t make me choose, please: I couldn’t live without either.) Snapping their fingers and smoothly wriggling their hips, Diana Ross and the Supremes bop through several of their ear-tickling hits.
There’s Smokey Robinson, too, and Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, and Mary Wells. Something close to rapture spreads through the audience when a magical little dynamo, the young Michael Jackson, takes the stage, spinning like a tiny top and singing with a grown man’s soul in his little boy’s voice box.
These performers are obviously not appearing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, where Broadway’s latest jukebox musical opened Sunday night. Instead, their indelible styles are being effectively recreated by a blazing cast of gifted singers impersonating this crowded pantheon of pop-chart immortals. Our tour guide on this busy joy ride through the Motor City of the late 1960s and ’70s, and the show’s principal character, is Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. Mr. Gordy wrote the book for the musical (adapted from his 1994 autobiography), and his recollections of the era and the artists he discovered form the shaky scaffolding for a musical that is, if nothing else, an efficient endorphin-delivery system for baby boomers.
The story begins at the end, in 1983, when a television special celebrating the Motown legacy is being prepared as a disgruntled Berry (Brandon Victor Dixon) broods in his Los Angeles home, waffling about whether to participate. He’s bruised by the company’s decline, which has been hastened by the departure of many acts he discovered, groomed and elevated into stardom. A few left lawsuits behind as parting gifts. (Although Berry mostly comes across as a heroic figure bordering on saintly, to Mr. Gordy’s credit — and that of the show’s script consultants, David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan — his conflicts with various artists are not entirely scrubbed from this unofficial record.)