Motown tells the story of how the seminal Motown Records came to be, and the life of founder Berry Gordy. From 1938 when a young Gordy, watching Joe Louis win to Max Schmeling, realises “Just keep God inside you and be the best you you can be.” To 1983 and the 25th anniversary of Motown Records. Motown chronicles the iconic label and the plethora, of what we call legends today, who’s careers began there. The likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, the list goes on.
Motown premiered on Broadway in 2013, bagging four Tony nominations. Best Actress in a leading role, Best Actor in a featured role, Best Orchestration and Best Sound Design. It did not win any.
The actors certainly have their work cut out for them. Ultimately it is to be expected of a jukebox musical, the conventions of which are: pick well known songs and then string together with the simplest of plots, then add in more songs for good measure. Undoubtedly it’s a tricky concept. Unlike most musicals where songs are written with a view to continuing the plot, jukebox musicals shoehorn in the most relevant songs, and then tie it together as much as possible with the dialogue in-between. Leaving very little (if any) room for interesting and complex character developments, meaty multi-narratives and any subtleties that that may encourage. Therefore, when you endeavor to tell a factual and poignant story, of how some of the biggest names in the history of music began, during the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, and the beginning of the true fight for race equality, and the key role Motown Records’ music played in that fight, it just feels as though you’re setting yourself up for failure. There is simply not enough time to do this story justice.
The script is uncomfortably clunky, and at times quite vague. It adopts some non-linear narrative techniques, that take a while to digest. And moments like the Detroit riots and the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. that demand immense power and integrity, come off as disappointingly ineffective. It must be said that Cedric Neal as Berry Gordy, triumphantly pieces together a character with some real heart and passion. His rendition of “Can I Close the Door (On Love)” is a truly beautiful performance, and quite possibly the highlight of the show. The one, faultless and incredibly impressive, element of this show is without a doubt the music. Over fifty of the biggest songs in the history of soul, funk and rhythm & blues are crammed in to this two hour and forty-minute production. Each and every performer on that stage possess a voice that is guaranteed to blow you away. With some remarkably accurate imitations of the greats, such as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and a young Michael Jackson. Some seriously soulful individuals, coupled with the immense power of the orchestra, it’s no wonder they had the entire theatre singing along and cheering with pure exhilaration and nostalgia.
Inevitably it’s the main reason you come and see these types of shows. If you like The Beatles, you see Let It Be, if you like The Kinks you see Sunny Afternoon, and if you like the Four Seasons you see Jersey Boys. You go to see your favourite songs being performed with a big band, lots of theatrics, lots of lights, great costumes on a west end stage, with an electric atmosphere. At one point they even drag a couple of people on to the the stage from the audience to sing, which was surprisingly funny and not painfully awkward, as you might expect.
A hard hitting, heart wrenching, emotional journey, this musical is not. A chance to hear some incredible songs sung by some equally incredible and talented people, it certainly can deliver. If you’re a fan of this style of music (and let’s face it who isn’t) and aren’t all that fussed about the little things like the plot, there is the potential for you to have a wonderful time. There certainly was a lot of admiration and satisfied faces on the way out of the theatre. It is abundantly clear however, why Best Musical was not on that nominations list.
Reviewed by Bob Galereux
Photo: Alastair Muir
Motown is playing at the Shaftsbury Theatre booking until 18th February 2017