Theatre review: Motown the Musical

Date Posted: 10/03/2016

Lucy St. Louis (Diana Ross) in Motown the Musical

Pictured: Lucy St. Louis as Diana Ross. Photo credit Alastair Muir.

Sarah Holt experiences the new West End musical that leaves audiences dancing in their seats.

You don’t get eased in to the Motown in Motown the Musical. You get to listen to a good few bars of Papa was a Rolling Stone before the curtain even goes up. And essentially, the production starts as it means to go on.

As the name suggests, the show is based on the story of the founding of the Motown record label by songwriter Berry Gordy (played by Cedric Neal) back in the 1950s. And although the show does take you through the trails and tribulations of Berry’s journey, the artists he made famous, and his relationship with Diana Ross, it’s the music itself that’s the focus of this production.

Less than 15 minutes into the first act I was wriggling in my seat, wishing I could get up and dance to songs like Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson and Dancing in the Street by Martha and the Vandellas.

With each new number came a new costume, too. It’s no coincidence the programme lists 20 different members of the wardrobe and wig department. Watching the show is like sitting through Fashion History 101, outfits range from the poofy petticoat skirts of the late fifties to the Lycra leggings of the eighties.

The set is quite simple, perhaps so as not to take the attention away from the music. Film effects on a huge on-stage screen were often enough to move the show from scene to scene. A dinner in Paris between Berry and Diana Ross, for example, was brought to life using a simple almost still-life film of the Eifel Tower and the Seine.

The cast of Motown the Musical.

Pictured: the cast of Motown the Musical. Berry Gordy is in the waistcoast. Photo credit Alastair Muir.

At the end of the first act the Motown hits were coming thick and fast; Where Did Our Love Go?, Stop! In the Name of Love, My Girl and War (what is it good for?) all came in quick succession. If I’m honest I was getting a bit fatigued.

However, if I was anywhere close to lethargic at the interval, Act Two was certain to bring me round.

Firstly, because of the appearance of a young Michael Jackson on stage. Actor Kwame Kandekore really stole the show during his performance of I Want You Back, ABC and The Love You Save. I grew up listening to Jackson 5 records and if I’d have closed my eyes, I don’t think I’d have been able to tell the difference between Kwame’s voice and the real Michael.

Secondly, I was brought back to life because of the period of audience interaction that took place. I have never seen anything like this in a West End musical before. It took place in a scene in which the newly solo Diana Ross was performing a concert. Diana, played by Lucy St Louis, started to address the audience and then she picked two people to join her next to the stage and sing with her.

I have to admit my toes curled when she told us that she wanted a couple of members of the audience to sing with her. I avoided eye-contact, unlike a blonde lady called Marie from Northampton and a dark haired man called Patrick from Canada. They took the microphone with relish and Lucy St Louis ad-libbed along the way.

Jordan Shaw (Stevie Wonder) in Motown the Musical

Pictured: Jordan Shaw as Stevie Wonder. Photo credit Alastair Muir.

Motown the Musical ends 25 years after the Motown record label began, at a 25th anniversary reunion concert that brought most of the original artists back together. Renditions of Happy Birthday and Signed Sealed Delivered by Stevie Wonder had the audience wriggling in their seats again. A few people close to me were even singing along.

I left the theatre smiling. For some reason, though, I had failed to establish the right degree of empathy with the lead characters to feel a real emotional connection to the show I had just seen.

In fact, the character that I enjoyed watching the most was Marvin Gaye, played on the night by Jordan Shaw. Jordan put real grit and subversiveness into his role and I wanted to follow his character into the wings to learn more about his story.

Having said that, Berry’s rendition of Can I Close the Door (On Love) at the end was impassioned. A few more moments of that sort of intensity and I could have changed my mind.

Overall, this musical is a tail feather tweaking, Technicolour homage to a musical genre that ‘changed America’ and possibly the world. It’s not got a soul-stirring story as such, but it will definitely have you dancing in your seats.

Motown the Musical is booking at The Shaftsbury Theatre until 18th February 2017. For more information visit www.motownthemusical.co.uk.

 

 

 

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