Friday, 18 March 2016

Motown The Musical

The book leaves much to be desired, but this jukebox musical’s parade of hits proves impossible to resist

Written by Richard Barber
Richard-Barber-colour-176People go to the theatre for different reasons. Some like to be intellectually stimulated. Some like to be frightened out of their wits. And some want nothing more than to be taken out of themselves.

If you should fall into the third category, and especially if you’re a baby boomer, you’re going to love Motown, a celebration of that record label’s string of chart-topping hits from the 1960s onwards.

The action begins in 1983 with an embittered Berry Gordy, Motown’s creator and prime mover, resolutely refusing to attend a musical jamboree featuring most of the stars he launched to fame. We then track back to the late 1950s and follow the progress of his company’s apparently unstoppable global success.

Eventually it hits the buffers, of course, with, first, Mary Wells defecting to a rival label, followed ultimately by Diana Ross, who struggles but cannot resist RCA ’s offer of a $20m contract.

The trouble is that the man himself – still around and a sprightly 86, as he proved by appearing onstage on opening night – has written the story of his own life. In fairness, he doesn’t gloss over the defection of his leading talent (maybe he has a score or two to settle), but his scriptwriting is of the Janet and John school. ‘Hey,’ he says, when we first clap eyes on the young black singer, ‘that Stevie’s a wonder!’

But look, this is all by the by. The reason we’re here is the music. And as the hits keep on coming – over 40 in total – you’d have as much chance of resisting as avoiding being flattened by a runaway truck. It’s invidious to single out individual performers, but Aisha Jawando makes a cracking Martha Reeves. The Temptations have the crowd clapping from the get-go. Charl Brown is Smokey Robinson to the life, and he’s funny, too.

Sifiso Mazibuko is a militant Marvin Gaye with a beautiful voice, but why give us only one verse of Grapevine, surely in everyone’s top three all-time Motown favourites? Young Eshan Gopal is an astonishingly competent Michael Jackson. From start to finish, Cedric Neal gives his all as Gordy. But it’s a rather fair-skinned Lucy St Louis who steals the show as Diana Ross, her dramatic arm movements and distinctive voice perfectly pitched.

All right, so it doesn’t have the whiplash sharpness of Jersey Boys, the similarly hagiographic story of the Four Seasons. But I defy anyone to stay rooted to the spot by the evening’s final curtain. Indeed, you’ll be Dancing In The Street.

Until 18 February 2017 at the Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2: 020-7379 5399,

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