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Wonder ‘magic’ part of ‘Motown: The Musical’

July 2, 2015

By Jacquelyn D. Heath Special to The Milwaukee Times

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Berry Gordy (far left), Mary Wilson (left), Elijah Ahmad Lewis (as Stevie Wonder, center) and Stevie Wonder (right) at Motown: The Musical On Tour Opening night in Detroit, Michigan.

 

To say the word “Motown” conjures up many images – among them, high-energy performances; dazzling costumes; spot-on choreography; and songs with memorable, catchy lyrics that told stories of love won and lost and provided the soundtrack for an entire generation. Motown: The Musical tells the true story of the record label started in Detroit, MI in 1959 by former amateur boxer-turned auto workerturned aspiring songwriter/ music mogul Berry Gordy, Jr., and the family of artists who had Americans – black, white, and all persuasions in between – dancing to the same beat.

That stable of artists included one of popular music’s most prolific and enduring icons – Stevland Hardaway Judkins Morris, also known as Stevie Wonder. Bringing Stevie’s special brand of musical magic to life in this stage production is New Jersey-born actor/ singer/songwriter/ choreographer Elijah Ahmad Lewis. “I portray Stevie Wonder as an adult,” the New York University-educated Lewis stated. “You must remember that when Stevie Wonder signed with Motown in 1961 and released his first hit record, ‘Fingertips,’ in 1963, he was only 12 years old.”

Lewis agreed that taking on the role of a real person who is still alive – someone as universally well-known as Stevie Wonder – presents a particular acting challenge. “For me, bringing forth the persona of Stevie Wonder involved embodying the character, which is more than a mere portrayal. After all, this is not a tribute performance, but the true story about real people and actual events. That calls for a special treatment of the subject and the players, more than mere imitation and avoiding gross portrayal that can devolve into caricature,” Lewis said.

In preparing for this role, Lewis remarked, “Thank God for YouTube and video archives, and Stevie’s remarkable catalog of recorded music. I was able to absorb a lot of Stevie’s persona and spirit from those things. We also had the chairman himself (i.e., Berry Gordy, Jr.), with us from the beginning; and he shared many of his insights on the different members of the Motown family,” Lewis explained.

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Elijah Ahmad Lewis

Motown: The Musical is based on Berry Gordy, Jr.’s 1994 published memoir, To Be Loved; and Gordy also serves as an executive producer for this stage production.

Lewis said he considers the chance to portray Stevie Wonder as “a choice role” and being name to the Motown cast a special experience. “Motown occupies a unique place in the annals of music and popular culture,” Lewis said. “Motown brought to the world music that celebrated diversity and brought about change in this country. One of its most prolific and creative forces was Stevie Wonder. He was a trailblazer, then and now. A child prodigy, he has continued to grow and evolve into pure, continuous genius. His songs paint vivid pictures for the mind and touch human emotions.”

Lewis also pointed to Wonder’s bent toward using his music to help bring about social change on a larger scale. Most notably, Wonder worked tirelessly to help make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. His efforts culminated in his 1986 release of the hit song, Happy Birthday. If there’s a message in the Motown story, according to Lewis, it’s good feelings and fond memories. Moreover, he describes the production as the story of what can happen when you believe in a dream and never give up on making it come true. “The music is as much a character in this play as the artists who created it. It will leave you feeling the energy, and remembering where you were, and who you were with, even what you were wearing when you heard that music,” Lewis said.

Alright, Milwaukee…get ready, ‘cause Motown: The Musical is on its way

“Motown: The Musical” runs July 7 through July 12 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, as part of the BMO Harris Broadway and Broadway Across America-Milwaukee Series. Tickets can be purchased at The Marcus Center box office, 929 N. Water St.; by phone at (414) 273-7206; or online at either MarcusCenter.org or Ticketmaster.com. There will be both evening and matinee performances.