Reji Woods’ grandmother would allow only three types of music in her house: gospel, country and Motown.
Because of the early exposure, Woods developed a deep affinity for Motown as a child. He and his cousins would pretend to be Motown groups themselves, singing and dancing along to the infectious music.
It turns out, those family gatherings were a little prophetic. Woods is the director and a lead performer of “Motown Legends,” Prima Theatre’s latest tribute to the soulful sounds of Detroit in the ’60s. The show features 10 vocalists performing the hits of the Jackson 5, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops and more. Motown Legends debuts Friday and runs through Dec. 21.
This marks the third time Prima has hosted a Motown tribute, but the first during the holiday season. While it’s not a traditional Christmas concert by any means, executive artistic producer Mitch Nugent thinks Motown’s ability to appeal to multiple generations makes it fitting for the joyous time of year.
“In today’s age, where there’s so much that divides us, that this music is such a unifier, and around the holidays, that kind of just makes sense,” Nugent says. “This is a time when we’re embracing peace and joy, and this music does such a good job of it.”
Woods agrees with that sentiment.
“When you can see an 80-year-old black couple and a 20-year-old black guy and a 7-year-old and they all know the words to this song and they’re all boppin’ and want to stand up and dance, that’s when you know it’s something that’s unifying,” Woods says.
As the show’s director, Woods found it important to employ a cast of all African American performers.
“I love the authenticity that it provides to the music,” Woods says. “I’m constantly one that wants to serve the music, and to me, that’s a big part of serving the music. Outside of that though, we don’t see a lot of African American performers in the area. And I love the opportunity to showcase something that’s a little bit different, a little bit fresher, and new to what we normally see here in Lancaster County.”
Because Motown offers such a wide selection of recognizable songs, crafting the Motown Legends setlist was tricky. Woods opted to use musical medleys to give audiences a taste of several songs by a particular artist without making the performances run too long.
There are a few moments in which Woods’ own history with Motown shines through. For instance, he opted to include “Ben,” a tender Jackson 5 song that wasn’t a major hit but tugs on his heartstrings. Plus, Woods used to sing it as a kid for his family at parties.
“It has a special meaning for me, and it also slows us down just a hair to show another side of the Jackson 5,” Woods says.
Woods won’t be singing lead on the song in Prima’s production though. He’s leaving that to 11-year-old Zane Wehye, who performs in the show along with his mother, Jeannette. The Wehyes are from Baltimore, and the cast also includes singers from Philadelphia, Harrisburg and the greater Lancaster area.
You can expect to hear these hits largely as you remember them, too. There won’t be any major reinterpretations of these classic numbers, but Woods and Nugent want to be sure the production won’t feel stodgy, either.
“We try to stay pretty true to the music, just because that’s what people know and love,” Woods says. “But there are a couple little things that you’ll see in the show that won’t feel dated.”
The debut of “Motown Legends” is right around the year anniversary of Prima’s permanent home on Wheatland Avenue. Previously, the theater rented various locations, which in turn limited its creative ability.
“This space, because it can change and shift and you can do so much with it, we’ve been able to really expand the experience itself,” Woods says.
So far, Prima’s investment has been paying off. Nugent says that in the past year, Prima has filled 96% of seating capacity and seen an average patron age of 48 — notably younger than the industry standard.
“We’re seeing a response to these productions that we perhaps wouldn’t have seen without having this home, so it’s a major gift,” Nugent says.