Motown The Musical Awarded Four Stars ****

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Motown the Musical is the latest of a long line of imported crowd-pleasing American jukebox shows to make it to the West End aimed at the baby-boomer generation.

Based on Motown creator Berry Gordy’s autobiography ‘To Be Loved,’ and written and co-produced by him, this is very much a version of Motown history from his perspective. The piece opens in 1983 with a sulky Gordy moodily refusing to attend a 25th-birthday tribute to his mega-creation. He feels betrayed by all the artists whose careers he has launched but have left him one by one to go onto better deals. While he is reflecting on the past the birth of Motown comes to life around him on stage.

It’s 1957 and Gordy has spent the first thirty years of life failing to succeed at anything including boxing, salesmanship and marriage. His passion is really writing music and he gets a break when Jackie Wilson records ‘Reet Petite,’ a song he co-wrote with his sister Gwen. Wilson goes on to record more of Gordy’s songs leading to international hits. Gordy borrows money from the family and reinvests the profits from his song writing success to go into producing, leading to the creation of Motown Records in Detroit. With Smokey Robinson penning hits for the fledgling label’s first star Mary Wells including the hit ‘My Guy’, and the chart-topping ‘Please Mr Postman’ with The Miracles, Motown becomes the much sought after record company to sign with for young black artists. Gordy is exceptionally skilled for spotting talent and over the next 25 years signs Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie making the Motown label a global phenomenon. Gordy was groundbreaking in getting white radio stations to play black artists allowing them to break into the mainstream, and changed the face of modern pop soul music forever. Gordy comes across as a fighter who stuck to his vision at all costs, and a clever physical nuance throughout the show has him taking a boxing stance and punching the air whenever difficulties arise. With a lot of his major discoveries moving onto to major corporate labels, he sells his record label in the late eighties, by which time the distinctive Motown sound has become almost a genre of it’s own. 

Motown the Musical is a song-crammed show and takes 50 classic hits and squeezes them into a non-stop singing and dancing celebratory evening. The show has light and shade and focuses on the early struggles against white and black segregation at concerts as well as the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Some of the strongest performances are given a historical context. As a backdrop to America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict Edwin Starr’s song ‘War’ is given a psychedelic dance makeover, and is appropriately followed by Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. 

Whereas it makes perfect sense that Berry Gordy the founder of Motown should be closely involved in producing the musical, he really hasn’t done himself any favours writing the cliché riddled script. Cedric Neal plays an almost saintly Gordy and manages to convincingly deliver the mawkish lines with conviction. Charl Brown oozes charisma as Smokey Robinson, and Lucy St Louis is outstanding as the fame hankering diva Diana Ross. Charles Randolph-Wright slickly directs the piece and choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams is hypnotic.

Motown the Musical plays until 18 February 2017. Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8DP, 0207 379 5399. Oliver Valentine. 

Review by Oliver Valentine. 

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