By D. Kevin McNeir
From the very first downbeat and accompanying dance routine, performed to the 1959 tune made famous by Chubby Checker when he added his special touch to the tune “The Twist” just a year later, it seemed evident that “Pride & Joy: The Marvin Gaye Musical” had all the makings of an old-school, blue lights in the basement party, fueled by the phenomenal, new wave of rock and soul that would take the world by storm throughout the turbulent ’60s.
And while some members of the audience found it impossible to remain seated, they would be even more captivated by a repertoire of subsequent tunes now firmly entrenched in America’s Songbook — part and parcel of songs shared by Berry Gordy Jr. and his Hitsville USA vocalists, musicians and dancers — all members of the Motown Records family.
The musical, which marked its world premiere at the National Theater in the District on May 8, invites its audience to tag along to witness the previously untold fairy-tale romance of the legendary Marvin Gaye and Anna Gordy, one of the boss’s sisters and a highly competent businesswoman who not only bedazzles Gaye as his career takes shape, but also snags his heart — becoming his wife, mother of his firstborn son and co-writer for several of Motown’s most endearing ballads — songs inspired by the twosome’s love, creativity and, at times, volatile clashes.
The play, based on the diaries of Anna Gordy Gaye, comes to the stage with the blessing of Gordy himself who not only reviewed the script but handpicked one of the lead performers, Jarran Muse, for the role of Marvin Gaye in his younger days.
Playwrights for the production come from the collaborative efforts of Marvin and Anna’s son, Marvin Gaye III, Angela Barrow-Dunlap and D’Extra Wiley — business partner and longtime friend of Marvin III who also dons the roles of both Jackie Wilson and Frankie Gaye (Marvin’s brother). The music, of course, comes from the vast Motown catalogue under the guidance of Music Director Cordell Walton, along with energetic, fresh choreography conceived by Tristan Andrews and Angela Blocker-Loyd — each of whom hails from Detroit — the city in which it all began.
No one who really appreciates songs with heartfelt lyrics, beautiful harmonies and intricately-delivered musical accompaniments can honestly dispute the magical touch and impact that Motown, armed with a bevy of unforgettable songs, soloists and singing ensembles, has had on the nation and the world — even 60 years since its founding.
And it’s the sound, the soul and the swagger of the Motown sound that reverberates throughout “Pride & Joy” — with an emphasis on the music written and/or performed by the D.C.’s own Marvin Gaye. And what an amazing portfolio he left for the world.
Two actors share the responsibility of bringing Gaye to the stage and both are superb in their performances — delivering the extraordinary artist during his earlier years, Muse, and in his later years, Chae Stephen. Both gentlemen easily hit the mark, comfortably unleashing the resonating, conversational timber of speech, the svelte, pitch-perfect vocals and the alluring walk and aura that would become second nature to Gaye, making him a household name.
As for confirmation regarding the delivery of the two “Marvins,” this writer only needed to look to the left or right and witness members of the audience, both women and men, young or old, who seemed enthralled by both actors, particularly Muse — singing along, snapping their fingers, rocking their heads, clapping their hands or nodding while the actors’ delivered their lines to signal their approval and pleasure.
In fact, the entire cast does a bang-up job in this production, most notably Tony Grant in his impressive performance and superb vocal delivery in the role of Harvey Fuqua — one of Gaye’s closest friends during his formative years in the business and a talented singer in his own right. Krystal Drake also shines as Anna Gordy Gaye as do both Justin Reynolds, who easily caresses the falsetto riffs made famous by Smokey Robinson, and Kourtney Lenton, who gives a sultry, “song-sational” performance as Gaye’s beloved singing partner, Tammi Terrell.
If you can overlook some of the moments of inertness caused by portions of the script that could have easily been eliminated, or perhaps more effectively delivered by an omniscient narrator, then “Pride & Joy” is a show you don’t want to miss. Even a week later, the songs made famous by the unforgettable duo of Tammi and Marvin, soulfully rendered by actors Lenton and Muse, continue to resound in this writer’s mind, heart and soul.
OK, I’ll admit, this production isn’t as polished — at least not yet — as the similarly-themed Broadway hit, “Motown the Musical.” But it’s still a whole lot of fun and certainly worth the price of admission.
Check it out and get your groove on. I sure did.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer.