I’ve already had occasion over the past few months to comment on the wave of nostalgia-based shows sweeping through the West End. The latest venture in this vein is ‘Dancing In The Streets’. But this is (to borrow a phrase from the Wizard of Oz) a ‘horse of a different colour’, since it’s primarily a celebration of the music of the immensely successful Motown label that was based in Detroit, and rapidly became a universally recognised brand that almost everyone still remembers and reveres 40 years and more since its birth. This is largely due to the fact that the artists who were signed to the label were some of the most successful of the last century, and the songs that made them famous were, to put it mildly, great.
I’m glad to say that in creating this revival of Motown music, the producers avoided the lure of devising a pseudo storyline to act as a vehicle for the show – the focus, thankfully, is entirely on the artists and their songs – presented very much as they might have been in stage shows of the 60s and 70s
The show is hosted by a compere who gives some introductions and basic background to the songs and the artists who performed them, and then the ensemble cast bring back to life the groups as we might have experienced them in the 60s and 70s, singing their most famous songs. So, we’re introduced in turn to the likes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Temptations et al, and songs such as ‘Mr Postman’, ‘Jimmy Mack’, ‘My Girl’, ‘Tears of a Clown’, ‘What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’, ‘How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You’, ‘Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday’, among others.
On theatre press nights, there’s often a short delay while the management are waiting for celebrities to arrive, or more notable critics than me to grace the auditorium with their weighty presence. But on this occasion we were kept waiting for almost 20 minutes for the show to start. Apologies were forthcoming from both the management and, after the start, from the show’s compere, but it still began the evening rather sourly. And I have a feeling it also impacted on the performances in the first half, because although everything seemed to go along reasonably well, it left one with a sense that everyone was subdued and rather ‘understated’ as my colleague commented. In fact, by the interval we were both feeling rather let down. With fantastic material to work with (which stands the test of time immensely well), the performances from the artists didn’t really do justice to the songs. And the musicians, though professional and competent, seemed to be ‘doing a job’ rather than making a real effort to entertain, impress and get the audience involved. It all seemed rather mechanical, and as if everyone was simply ‘going through the motions’, though the artists performing as Martha and the Vandellas managed to notch the show up a gear with their versions of ‘Nowhere To Run To’ and ‘Jimmy Mack’. And though the audience seemed interested and were induced to do some half-hearted clapping to the rhythms, they didn’t seem over-enthusiastic about the show.
So, at the end of the interval, we were expecting rather more of the same. Then ‘The Temptations’ appeared and suddenly things started to buzz. The audience got more involved and animated, and the cast and musicians seemed to move into a much higher gear all round. Suddenly, we had ‘Dancing In The Streets’ on stage, and ‘dancing in the aisles’ in the house. What happened to spark all this off? Well, maybe someone had a word with the cast in the interval, or maybe the audience had their brains lubricated sufficiently at the bar during the interval to cast off their inhibitions. However, there was also a marked change in the format in the second half. The set for The Temptations was longer than those that had gone before, and I think this allowed the audience to identify more with the performers than had been possible in the first half, where each group of performers had only tackled one or 2 songs at most.
Whatever the reason for the gear-change, by the end of the show, almost everyone in the audience was dancing, clapping and cheering, and seemed to be having a great time. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that one had seen 2 separate shows. But, maybe first night nerves or the unsettling effect of the late start also had a hand in the lack-lustre feel of the first half. Still, it worked out all right in the end, and the talented ensemble company managed to recreate a glimpse of the magic of the Motown era and the stars who made it all happen.
‘Dancing In The Streets’ won’t be to everyone’s taste – though the audience last night was very mixed, ranging from pre-adolescents, to people well into their retirement – but for those who like infectious, hummable, foot-tapping songs with a touch of soul and style which only Motown seemed capable of producing at the time, it’s well worth a visit to lift your spirits. And it might be worthwhile taking the kids along as an educational outing to give them a taste of what ‘real’ songs and performances used to be like!
What the popular press had to say.....
DOMINIC CAVINDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The company sing not just with hark-at-us virtuosity but with unbridled soulfulness. They remind you why these songs are timeless, catching the melancholy and heartache that run through the most up-tempo, infectiously jaunty numbers." IAN SHUTLEWORTH for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Where is the fun in watching people who are not the real thing?" CAROLINE SULLIVAN for THE GUARDIAN says, "There's no history or attempt at social contextualisation, which is scandalous given Motown's critical role in bringing black music into the mainstream." CLIVE DAVIS for THE TIMES says, "YES, it’s only a juke-box musical...But when the juke-box is as potent as this, the usual reservations can be laid to one side. As a celebration of the Motown era, Dancing in the Streets has enough verve and unabashed high spirits to win over all but the most curmudgeonly audiences."
Photo of outside theatre by Peter Brown