THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Motown the Musical
It is what it says on the package and if you love the infectious sound of Motown (and who doesn't) then you won't be disappointed. Nearly 50 songs are shoehorned into this ultimate jukebox musical. That is both its triumph and its downfall.
Berry Gordy, now a sprightly 86, in producing the show and writing the book didn't want audiences disappointed, but the result is that too many of these great numbers are truncated. With pop songs this polished though it is a shame to snatch them away from the audience incomplete. There also has to be troughs to give the peaks some impact.
It is an understandable impulse though because the sheer volume and quality of this music. Motown launched the careers of basically every major African-American pop artist from the '60s to the '80s: from legends like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder to stars like Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips. It goes on.
The show is bookended by a scene in 1984 where a bitter Gordy is refusing to attend a 25th birthday celebration of the label. We then get a straightforward rendering of Gordy's story from the time he purchased (on a family loan of $800) the house in Detroit which became Hitsville USA studio, to his being engulfed by the majors who wooed away all his stars. He finally sold to MCA in 1988.
Gordy's only mistake with the show was not to get an outside writer to shape the material. It commits every sin of a bad book. Characters tell each other who they are and where and as it flits from one act to another we get little hold on any character. A few lesser linking songs are added and while the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s are referenced, it is a passing glance. Of particular interest is the racism they experienced not just in the South but it the board rooms of LA but there is little time to develop this.
There is an awful lot to get through and director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps it moving at a cracking pace. All the technical contributions are top class, especially Peter Hylenski's sound design. Ethan Popp's arrangements and Gareth Weedon's musical direction rise to the challenge of recreating such well-loved numbers on a live stage with unfamiliar performers.
All the cast are expertly chosen and the leads are mostly imports from the Broadway production. Cedric Neal brings a nervy energy to Gordy and delivers a bravura 11-o'clock-number 'Can I Close the Door on Love'. Sifiso Mazibuko oozes charisma as Marvin Gaye and Charl Brown's Smokey Robinson is a sweet as his voice is unique. The tall order of the evening was playing Miss Ross and Lucy St Louis (now there's a Vaudeville moniker) nails it. She gets but voice but also, without being given much to work on, delivers a more rounded character. Little Eshan Gopal brings the house down with a winning determination as Michael Jackson.
History is written by the victors and tribute shows written by the subject will inevitably be open to accusations of being partisan, but does it really matter here. In the end it's about delivering this great music with panache and this they achieve. The real Berry Gordy acknowledged from the stage on opening night how important UK audiences were to him. He described his shocked delight at the sheer warmth of the response they received when they first came here in '65. I think that affection still holds.