MOTOWN, currently in preview at the Shaftesbury Theatre, is the story of the protégés and stars of the uniquely talented group of singers, musicians and writers who, under Berry Gordy’s guidance, began as ‘the Sound of Young America’ and went on to become some of the greatest pop superstars of all time.
In a show with a minimal (and minimalistic) book, MOTOWN features forty or so songs made famous by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five, and many more.
Two US artistes have been imported to play Cedric Neal (Berry Gordy) and Charl Brown (Smokey Robinson). It says much for the UK artistes that neither of these US artistes outshines them and the UK company, lead by Lucy St Louis as Diana Ross, hold their own. But however good the artistes are who perform live at the Shaftesbury Theatre, they simply cannot have the demi-godlike charisma of the originals they are mimicking. So, in many ways, MOTOWN is like a highly glorified karaoke drag show – yes, you admire the endeavour, but all the time you remember the greatness of the originals who are being portrayed. And you miss them.
Disappointingly for a theatre show, the songs are all given pop mixes (where the solo voice is buried in the backing track), so the audience are not engaged in any way in the songs at all. Yes, at the end of each song there is polite applause, but the overall effect is like sitting in a cinema rather than in a live theatre (Sound design by Peter Hylenski). However, towards the end, Berry Gordy (Cedric Neal) sings Can I Close The Door (On Love). This is given a new musical theatre orchestration and a musical theatre mix, where the vocal is in placed in front of the band. The audience around me stopped eating, they stopped talking and they were totally engaged. And at the song’s end, they brought the house down. I wish the creative team had chosen to do this more often.
Did I enjoy this show? Not much - I was never invited to participate or to be engaged. Did I admire it? Well, I hugely admire the work by British Actors Equity and the Musicians’ Union... Would I recommend it? Not really, you would probably enjoy listening to the original Broadway cast album just as much – turned up to 11 and in the privacy and comfort (and silence) of your own home.
But did the audience who eat their Happy Meal (with shakes) and who talked throughout like it? They adored it and roared their approval at the end. Motown worked for them. Live theatre is for everyone.