This show has a great title. It promises camp, catty gossip, scheming, razor-sharp insults and unearned vanity. Or so I thought. Yes, the show is peppered with small bits of “Real Housewives” drama, but it is no send-up. This is a highly sentimental show that aims to portray the struggles of some of the wives (and eventually ex-wives) of Motown superstars. There is no mystery to any of the emotional development of the characters, or to their battles with their famous husbands and Motown’s founder and taskmaster Berry Gordy, or to the “behind every great man…” moral of the show.
These are some of the wives of the singers in The Temptations and The Four Tops. As portrayed in the show, they are a pretty dreary lot, made uninteresting by the creators’ insistence on showing them mainly as good mothers, long-suffering on the homefront while their men tour, and as unheard pleaders who ask repeatedly that the dads see more of their kids. They repeatedly lament that they put all their dreams on hold for their money-making partners.
Honestly? Couldn’t they have been a little less saintly and a little more interesting? The one housewife with some grit and drama is not really a housewife, but Claudette Rogers Robinson, the accomplished singer who is also wife to Motown’s hitmaker Smokey Robinson. She’s played with power by Britt Edwards, who’s so good in the role one wonders whether focusing on the one real housewife would have made a more engaging show. The women playing the three other wives are also fine performers, but they don’t have much material to stretch. For most of the show, the women act as devices to knit together a jukebox worth of tunes, most sung by the men playing the Motown performers.
Black Ensemble Theater has been on a roll lately with musicals that seemed to break the entertaining, but increasingly clunky mold it honed over most of its history. The old BET-produced, mostly narrated semi-documentaries with wooden, predictable dialogue about famous Black—mostly Boomer-era—performers and groups were the standard. The new generation of shows hasn’t veered far from the formula, but they have felt more up-to-date. Even at their most kludgy, BET shows almost always rock with a fabulous house band, wonderful singers and lively, clever, often humorous choreography. I have long loved the package even when I cringe at the show’s paint-by-numbers scripts.
“Real Housewives” keeps the great band and wonderful choreography. There are a couple of singers who are solid, vocally strong mimics, especially RJ Griffith as Smokey Robinson. But his Smokey character is marred by dialogue that often seems to have no meaningful content. Unfortunately, on the night I saw the show, the sound design, with over- and under-mic’ing, a hollow amplified sound and too much electronic static worked against every singer. I also saw the second show of the day and many of the singers seemed just plain vocally fatigued. For me, and perhaps for BET, this show seems like a huge step backward. I might advise waiting for a better BET show because a good one is always on the way. But my reservations come with reservations.
For much of the audience around me, filled with older boomers who danced when The Temptations and The Four Tops first burst onto the world scene, and who may have been cheered and inspired by the rise of the 1960s Black stars, the show was rousing enough to have them singing along and calling out in support of the wives on stage. Maybe for them, the well-trodden songs, story and dialogue are exactly the tonic they came for. And I hope they keep coming and singing and enjoying the show. As for me, I’d love a clever, original show that lives up to the lurid and comic expectations the title broadcasts and my wicked desire to skewer reality television craves.
“Real Housewives of Motown” at Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark, (773)769-4451, blackensemble.org. Through July 9.