I like to keep things mixed up in this blog. Usually, I focus on disability issues but that can get a wee bit boring at times, at least for me if not for my audience. So as it was my birthday this past Wednesday and my parents were kind enough to treat me to one of my favourite things: a West End show, I thought I’d try my hand at theatre reviewing and give my personal opinion on what we saw. If you are thinking of heading up to London and want a second opinion you might find it useful.
MOTOWN: The Musical -A Walk Down Memory Lane But You Might Get Deja Vu
The hits of Motown are the latest catalogue to get the Juke Box musical treatment following such massive successes as Mamma Mia! and The Jersey Boys. It’s rich pickings too with well-loved tunes such as Baby Love and My Girl guaranteed to bring back the fondest memories for anyone who lived through the 60s and 70s as well as those too young to remember but love a classic, well-written pop song. Musically-wise this show will not disappoint, packed full as it is with the glossiest and classiest that Berry Gordy’s music factory churned out in its heyday.
Indeed , the man behind such iconic stars as Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross and the Supremes steps from behind the boardroom table to take centre stage in this showcase of his finest work. Not only is this a celebration of classic black American Rhythm and Blues from its birth into main-stream, previously predominately white popular music, it is also a bio of the man who gave those early black artists a shot at showing their writing and singing talents to the world, Berry Gordy, ably played by American lead Cedric Neal. But while Neal is along with the rest of the cast, more than vocally capable of handling the classic catalogue, the truth remains that the plot woven around Gordy’s life is fairly thin and doesn’t show him as a very likable character. A bizarre fact as the real Gordy wrote the book for the show himself which makes you wonder how on earth did he want to portray his time at the top. Bio-shows like this and Jersey Boys always suffer from cutting both the full length of certain numbers and the details of their subject’s lives to fit a three hour runtime, but while Jersey Boys did give you a sense of Valli’s friendships and personal life, the ultimate focus of MOTOWN is Gordy’s business success. He comes across as a person who was determined to succeed in whatever field he went into, if it hadn’t been music, he would have made it to the top in another area. While that can-do attitude is admirable in real life, the lack of true passion for music in a main character of a show like this robs the heart of the story, no matter how engaging the songs are. It’s difficult to spend the three hours with a protagonist you simply don’t like and who you feel is less interested in issues of black and white and more concerned with all matters green.
Of course, any show set in this period of American history has to deal with the mountainous political issues around race and the cultural upheaval happening at the time. In fact, with MOTOWN being a company who were pushing black artists by a black label, it should have been at the core of the story’s motivation. But while references to the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s death are sprinkled liberally around the main plot, you never get the feeling that Gordy truly was engaged in such matters that were vital to his community, leaving such points as empty window dressing which lack the gravity they perhaps deserve. One could argue that such matters weren’t the subject of MOTOWN, that the focus is Gordy’s life and the music he produced. But with other shows like Memphis and, dare I say it, even Hairspray handling Americans of different colour coming together through the love of arguably some of the best music in the past century and still managing not to let the message crush the very songs involved, MOTOWN is left feeling clunky, even disrespectful. So by the time the cast closes Act 1 with What’s Going On? I was left feeling the answer was ‘why should I care? I don’t think Berry Gordy does!’
What Gordy DID clearly care about, apart from the good old dollar, was his muse and lover Diana Ross and much of the run time is devoted to their troubled affair. But even that seemed somehow, well, bland and I can’t say really why. Perhaps it is because Gordy’s character is lacking in charisma or that Lucy St Louis seems to be struggling to fill Ross’s glittering shoes. She gives it her all, no doubt, and her voice is pleasant and strong enough to belt out Ross’s hits. It just seems like to become an iconic diva like Ross she is having to go SO big, her manner SO affected, that the more intimate moments of what was a difficult love/business affair gets lost. But perhaps the real blame lies not with Neal or St Louis but in the fact that the ups and downs of the Gordy/Ross romance has been already expertly played out in fiction in the Oscar winning ‘Dream Girls’. Knowing that the real Gordy wrote the book for this version makes it impossible to watch him lovingly ‘guide’ her career without wondering how much freedom Ross really had.
But despite all the criticism, MOTOWN is very enjoyable, mainly due to the golden soundtrack performed by the talented cast. Greats such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder are capably portrayed, although their interesting characters and lives are not given anywhere near enough focus, belting out the hits that helped the studio rise to its iconic status. I particularly enjoyed the acapella reprise of My Girl towards the end of Act 1 while Act 2 is packed with all the satiny gloss and funk of the 1970s. No, musically MOTOWN can’t be faulted and is definitely worth the ticket price for someone who is a fan of this era of pop and soul. I just question whether the songs and performers would have been better fitted to a straight tribute show without the unengaging frame of Gordy’s autobiography.