For a show such as “The Marvin Gaye Story,” we come for the music and stay for the life story. But we expect to see how the two interrelate, how the life influences the music, how—perhaps—the sound emanates from the fury. Unfortunately, Black Ensemble Theater puts our expectations in peril with a biography that’s much more about the man than his music.
The show begins with the end of the Motown singer’s life, when his tyrannical father shot him with a handgun. We then go back in time to learn that Gaye was repeatedly and brutally abused as a child, a tragic experience from which he never recovered. As an adult, he acted erratically, suffered bouts of extreme depression and abused people as well as drugs. And, oh yes, he created beautiful music: the production periodically “interrupts” the life story to feature Gaye performing a number—such as the iconic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”—as he becomes a smoothly soulful star at Motown.
While actor Rashawn Thompson fails to capture the laid-back passion of Gaye’s vocal style, he’s mostly moving as the troubled star. The problem is that the production rarely connects Gaye’s music to the shape and direction of his life. Why did an angry man create such mellow music; why—indeed—did he create music at all?
By focusing on his sensationalist death and its early inevitability, the production buries his musical accomplishments—the very reason we love him.
For example, Gaye shook the music world and changed Motown forever with the “What’s Going On” album of 1971. Instead of romantic love and heartbreak, the usual Motown preoccupations, Gaye sung with a cool sadness about a cruelly changing world and its evils of war, poverty, racism and ecological destruction. The album sold millions, and later—in the twenty-first century—Rolling Stone placed it sixth on the venerable magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
Why did Gaye make a socially conscious album and what of himself went into that music? Sadly, “The Marvin Gaye Story” largely maintains radio silence on the matter. (Michael Amedeo)
Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark, (773)769-4451, blackensembletheater.org, $55-$65. Through July 10.