Motown the Musical – review

Published: Thursday, March 10, 2016 3:28 PM | Review by: Mike Scott-Harding |
l-r Brandon Lee Sears, Samuel Edwards, Eshan Gopal, Simon Ray Harvey, Simeon Montague as The Jackson 5 in Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Photo credit Alastair Muir l-r Brandon Lee Sears, Samuel Edwards, Eshan Gopal, Simon Ray Harvey, Simeon Montague as The Jackson 5 in Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Photo credit Alastair Muir

Lucy St. Louis is superb. Whether playing Diana as an ambitious ingénue, a seasoned performer, a young woman in love, or as a bona-fide diva, she gives the role believability and a great deal of charisma.

On the face of it, ‘Motown the Musical’ appears to be one in a long line of jukebox musicals: a carefully-crafted stage show put together to showcase songs from a particular era, genre, or act. However, the element that makes this show different from – say – ‘Dancing in the Streets’ is that there is a narrative. That the story in question is an authorised biography of the label’s founder and visionary, Berry Gordy, makes it worthy of notice.


Using Motown’s historic 25th Anniversary re-union as inspiration, the show starts off with a musical ‘battle’ between Motown’s two big male groups, ‘The Four Tops’ and ‘The Temptations’. The latter’s “Sugar Pie” is interlinked with the former’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, and the shared choreography and vocals create a strong opening. By way of context, we see Berry Gordy in 1983 expressing bitterness, and showing reluctance to attend the aforementioned ceremony/tribute. So – rather Citizen-Kane-like – we are taken on a journey to show how he got there.


Using US boxer Joe Louis’ 1938 fight with German Max Schmeling as an initial inspiration, we are guided through all of Gordy’s major signposts: composing ‘Reet Petite’ for Jackie Wilson, meeting Smokie Robinson, borrowing $800 from his family to create ‘Hitsville USA’ (a hit-making machine he based on his experience working in an automobile-making factory in Detroit). The piece references the great song-writing team, Holland-Dozier-Holland’, the ‘Quality Control’ committee that decided which songs were to be released; even the musicians – the immortal ‘Funk Brothers’ - are mentioned (however briefly).


Lucy St. Louis (Diana Ross) in Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Photo credit Alastair Muir Lucy St. Louis (Diana Ross) in Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Photo credit Alastair Muir

In some ways, this production can be seen as an old (er) man coming to terms with the loves and losses of his life; which might be why such care and affection is given over to reconciling his feelings for two major characters: Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye. The long run of hits that ‘Diana Ross and The Supremes’ had (as well as the iconic ‘60s images of her) helped to change – not only popular music – but the perception of black people in America and the world beyond it. It’s no wonder Gordy fell in love with her. However, as the story unfolds, we get to see the folly of concentrating resources into one ‘model’ – no matter how luxurious.


Motown has been described as ‘the house that Diana built’. This is patently not true, as the hits previous to her arrival bear witness to. However, we can see that their continued relationship and love certainly helped usher in the bull-dozers. Lucy St. Louis is superb. Whether playing Diana as an ambitious ingénue, a seasoned performer, a young woman in love, or as a bona-fide diva, she gives the role believability and a great deal of charisma. Indeed, once we get to Vegas, she masterfully commands the audience – even plucking two people up to sing “Reach out and touch”.


Gordy’s relationship with Marvin is not as clearly articulated, however. His marriage to Anna – Berry’s sister - is hardly mentioned, and the (often bad-tempered) battle for artistic control is alluded to, but not fully explored. Similarly, Stevie Wonder’s amazing Motown career is reduced to a two-song medley, and a truncated encore.


For those unfamiliar with – or unmoved by - the history of Motown, the story-telling doesn’t get in the way of the songs… and what songs they are!!! Some of the musical highlights include “Please, Mr. Postman”, act two opener “Ball of Confusion”, a ‘Jackson 5 medley’, and Smokie’s (politically-charged) “You’ve really got a hold on me”. But the emotional highlight is when Berry played superbly by Cedric Neal sings the penultimate slow-burning song, “Close the Door on Love”. It is a quite beautiful song about love and regret, performed with grace and poise.


l-r Brandon Lee Sears, Samuel Edwards, Eshan Gopal, Simon Ray Harvey, Simeon Montague as The Jackson 5 in Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Photo credit Alastair Muir l-r Brandon Lee Sears, Samuel Edwards, Eshan Gopal, Simon Ray Harvey, Simeon Montague as The Jackson 5 in Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Photo credit Alastair Muir

The musical arrangements are punchy and powerful, and fit in-and-around the story without being overpowering.

In fact, the whole production is held together by his charisma, acting chops, and superb vocals. Although a little pitchy near the start of the show, his tone and technique soon dominated the proceedings. A superb turn! Charles Randolph-Wright’s direction is extremely good - as much care has been brought to the dramatic sections as the choreographic set-pieces, and it shows. The sets are well-designed, and are versatile enough - along with the lighting and projection - to support the narrative effortlessly. As one would expect, the costumes and wigs are superb, and go a long way to helping the illusion.


The musical arrangements are punchy and powerful, and fit in-and-around the story without being overpowering. The performances are generally good; Charl Brown as ‘Smokie’ is consistently charming, while Portia Harry (in various roles including Teena Marie) is funny, sexy, and as easy on the ear as she is on the eye. But the show belongs to Lucy St. Louis, Cedric Neal and and to a larger extent – Berry Gordy himself. There are some liberties taken with chronology and timeframes, and how one can have a ‘Four Tops’ act without a suitable Levi Stubbs-like baritone is beyond me. But these are small quibbles.


Thank you, Berry Gordy, for eschewing your demons and giving us this piece of work. For those who wish to use it as such, it is a good starting-point to get to the riches of the past; for those don’t, it’s a great night out. In an example of ‘life imitating art’, the packed-out audience for this performance was - and will probably continue to be - predominantly white (sigh). Berry Gordy – who, in his heyday, would often declare that he wasn’t making music for ‘black’ or ‘white’ people, just ‘people' - would probably approve.



Info: Motown the Musical is at Shaftesbury Theatre until February 18, 2017 / See listing



Related links

Motown the Musical casting update for West End production opening at Shaftesbury Theatre in February 2016




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