Motown The Musical
Motown The Musical is a joyful celebration of Motown’s first 25-years that oozes showmanship and panache from the sequin effect daubed on the ornate exterior of the Shaftesbury Theatre to the huge, glossy programme.
With a book by Motown founder Berry Gordy, the plot follows him through the Motown journey. And lead Cedric Neal’s Gordy is superb. A lot is made of the debate of actors who can sing vs singers who can act. Neal can do both naturally.
Unlike a lot of historical plays and musicals, the conceit is actually an excellent idea. Gordy is sitting at home and won’t listen to pleas from friends and family to attend Motown’s 25th anniversary event. The business is under financial threat and Gordy feels betrayed by the artists who walked away from the label when they became successful and are returning “for one night.” His mind drifts to the launch and growth of Motown, forming the uninterrupted bulk of the piece. This idea has substance but is not intrusive, so works very well.
But the musical is as much an exploration of human nature as a straightforward Gordy biopic, with a great emphasis placed on the development of his relationships with two of his stars, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross.
Many of the hits get an (albeit brief) airing, from Reet Petite to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough via My Girl, Shop Around, I Heard it Through the Grapevine and Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours. The singing on all is very good. While Ashley Samuels’ Stevie Wonder and Obioma Ugoala’s Smokey Robinson replicate the stars very well, Lucy St Louis’ Diana Ross and understudy Carl Spencer’s Marvin Gaye breathe new life into their numbers.
However, it’s the three original songs, written for this production, which really steal the show. Although they are clearly written for the stage rather than Tamla Motown 7”s, they fit in well. Hey, Joe! (Black Like Me) perfectly suits the contextual inclusion of black American boxer Joe Louis’ 1938 rematch knockout of Nazi darling Max Schmeling, which Gordy admitted in his programme notes was a very important moment for him as an eight-year-old boy, and for race relations in the USA. It’s What’s in the Grooves That Counts is the best song on its own, which accompanies Gordy’s difficulties in getting black music onto the airwaves through bargaining with popular white DJs while near the show’s end, Can I Close the Door (On Love) is a perfectly gentle plot advancer.
As well as the reference to Joe Louis, the balance between historical context and a strong, focused plot is struck with near-perfect accuracy. Martin Luther King, black and white separation, John F Kennedy’s assassination and the race riots are all included as undeniable parts of the label’s, and the world’s history – but you’re never far away from the next musical number or Motown plot development. Much like in the case of Motown’s output, these issues are present but they don’t distract from the great music – you never feel like you’re being lectured or even educated.
The lavish costumes and incredibly rapid changes contribute to a superb visual show. The backdrops regularly change, with Stevie Wonder lit up with a lightshow just similar enough to evoke Songs in the Key of Life but not too similar to draw a lawsuit from the sleeve designer. The best part is the wave of the ‘new’ Motown artists after the first batch of stars, all briefly introduced to an outstanding light show.
Motown The Musical’s staging is very clever. The stalls are a gift for any jukebox musical if done right, and the creators behind this piece use the audience to great effect, encouraging a bit of (but not excessive) participation and really playing to the fans, who lap it up.
The live band in the orchestral pit is a great idea, and they add to the depth of the show rather than detract from the slickness of it.
So why is it not 10/10?
Although the piece deals with race relations well on the whole, the few white characters seem one-dimensional. Although of course they were by no means the most important parts of the story, the lawyers, accountants, DJs and marketing team could have really helped to advance the narrative, but instead they add very little to the storyline. Perhaps this is not a bad thing in a musical about black successes, but the direct flashpoints between the old hierarchy and new wave of black talent did not seem as well developed as they could have been.
Motown The Musical bravely decides to confront the racism which was still prevalent during Motown’s breakthrough and with a book written by Gordy himself, it seems somehow misplaced to criticise the authenticity of the backstory. However, for the characters to be included at all must mean they were important, but it’s not obvious quite how much. Such vague, lazy white pastiches therefore dull the incredible achievements of the black artists and musical visionaries who succeeded in breaking the internalised racism of the 1960s music industry.
Also, for a play which hinges on the struggle that Gordy faced in keeping the wolves from the label’s door in the approach to its 25th Anniversary, his feelings of betrayal towards the artists who jumped ship for more money, plus the difficulties he encountered and busted earlier on which made him a legend, perhaps the play is at times a bit too slick. The automatically moving set, while smooth, is just a bit too glitzy and not in-keeping with the period feel at all.
For a musical of hits and stars we had to wait far too long for the excellent representations of Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, and as other reviewers have noted there are some fundamental weaknesses in the script: the scene in which Gordy and Robinson are deciding upon a name for the label is cringe-inducing, as is one particular Mancunian accent in a scene when the Supremes are on tour. The discussion of that group’s internal struggles takes up enough stage time but sees little resolution when Diana Ross goes solo – what became of the others, we want to know. Although period, the inclusion of a snippet of Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini really doesn’t fit in, jarring with the rest of the show.
In a 2 hour 45 minute play containing 50 songs and some meaty dialogue, we hear only heavily cut versions of the hits. I wanted to go away singing something under my breath, but it’s for this reason that I just didn’t.
Nonetheless, Motown The Musical adds a hit of rose-tinted technicolour to an unrivalled back catalogue. It’s fun but doesn’t neglect the serious undercurrents which made Motown such a pioneering and legendary venture. A nostalgic treat which hits many of the right notes.
Motown The Musical is booking until January 2019, with tickets from £19.50 here.