The Theatreguide.London Review
Shaftsbury Theatre 2016 - 2019
This jukebox musical from Broadway ticks off most of the boxes in what an audience wants from the genre, but is a little too unoriginal, formulaic and ultimately unevocative of the originals to be really satisfying.
Motown was, of course, the Detroit-based record company formed in the 1950s by black entrepreneur Berry Gordy Jr to bring young black singers into the mainstream of American pop music.
Gordy discovered, created or fostered an extraordinary list of performers including the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five, and succeeded completely in breaking down radio and record shop resistance, only to watch one after another of his stars lured away by record companies with deeper pockets.
The musical's minimal book follows that story with Cedric Neal as Gordy at its centre as youngsters literally walk in his front door and beg to sing for him.
(Gordy wrote the book and produced the show, so don't expect any shocking revelations. The darkest thing that happens is that Gordy becomes bitter about all the defections and wants nothing to do with a Motown Reunion TV special. Will he show up for the taping at the musical's finale? No points for guessing.)
Along the way there are at least snippets of more than sixty Motown songs, some given no more than a minute to remind us of the originals.
About a third have been integrated into the plot, generally for the Gordy character, from That's What I Want as he raises the money to start the company through Can I Close The Door as he decides whether to join the reunion, and Cedric Neal sings them with solid dramatic power.
The rest of the songs are presented as performances or recordings by the original artists, and here is where Motown the Musical is most likely to disappoint. Taken purely as a string of tribute acts, they are hit-and-miss with far too many misses.
Charl Brown makes Smokey Robinson an amiable and attractive pal for Gordy, but never sounds like the original, while Lucy St Louis takes far too long to get past the starstruck teenager and find the character of Diana Ross, and while she ultimately gets the diva hauteur, she never captures the sound.
Jordan Shaw, an understudy as Marvin Gaye, gets him exactly right, as does Kwame Kandekore (one of several boys rotating in the role) as the young Michael Jackson. But the Mary Wells and Gladys Knight fall short, as do the Supremes and too many others.
Generally speaking, the groups are more successful than the soloists, maybe because harmonies are easier to capture than individual voices – the show opens with a witty battle-of-the-bands between the faux Temptations and imitation Four Tops that promises more in the way of memory-jogging than the rest of the show delivers.
(It may have something to do with the staging, as choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams score with enhanced versions of the tight-formation movements for the backup singers that was a Motown signature.)
Audiences come to a musical like Motown with limited expectations. Lots of songs they already know? Check. Easy to follow plot? Check. Lots of bright colours and flashy movement? Check. Tribute acts that sound like the originals? Well, sometimes.
Ask for little and be satisfied. Expect what I think you have a right to expect, and Motown may disappoint.
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Review - Motown - Shaftsbury Theatre 2016