Jukebox musicals — shows that plunder old pop catalogues to make the music of their youth come alive for theatregoers who can now afford the price of theatre tickets to indulge such nostalgia — have become a West End and Broadway epidemic. I recently adored Close to You, a shameless concert promotion but also reinvention of the songs of Burt Bacharach, and Beautiful and Jersey Boys are both smart Broadway biographies of the legends that are Carole King and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons respectively.
But each of those had a bit of distance from their subjects and catalogues that enabled them to provide a reverent but different take on them. What to make of Motown the Musical, written and co-produced by Berry Gordy, the man whose story and amazing impact on popular music as founder of the Motown label it slavishly chronicles?
He hasn't perhaps served himself best by taking all the credit, in every way, here. It's a megalomania run riot — but perhaps that, too, was the secret of his single-minded success. Though the musical has him expressing some doubts along the way — and even suffering a bout of impotence when he goes to bed with his star Diana Ross — it is mostly standard-issue hagiography, a triumph of will and determination against such serious obstacles as an America that was still racially segregated in some parts and Big Business as rival labels started poaching his artists.
But these diversions into seriousness that also throw in the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King for good measure soon dissolve into a pop parade of over 50 of the songs that the Motown label turned into global hits, from artists that as well as Diana Ross and the Supremes also included Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Jackson Five, including a pint-sized Michael Jackson.
The latter means that Jackson is now appearing simultaneously on two West End stages, as he's also the subject of his own revue, Thriller Live, at the Lyric. Eshan Gopal, the youngster who played him on press night, has actually played the same role in Thriller Live, so he might be feeling a sense of youthful deja vu, though the production values are undoubtedly far higher here.
That sense of deja vu might be shared by audiences watching this in the Shaftesbury, where two more Broadway imports of Hairspray and Memphis once played, and both revolved around fictional portrayals of the emergence of 'race music' as it was called into mainstream culture in late 50s and early 60s America, and of which the Motown label was a market leader.
But all doubts dissipate as those songs keep coming at us. And director Charles Randolph-Wright's slick, sleek production, with exhilarating choreography of non-stop movement by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams and an amazing band under the musical direction of Gareth Weedon, makes the music come alive in sound, motion and emotion. "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" is one of them; and I felt that the same about the show by the time it reached its uproarious finale to Dancing in the Streets, which had the audience dancing in the aisles.
Gordy is powerfully portrayed by American import Cedric Neal, and there are strong impersonations of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye by Lucy St Louis, Charl Brown and Sifiso Mazibuko respectively; it is thrilling to see so much exceptional talent on one stage.
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"It is clear that the ego has landed. But, eager as I am as the next person to learn more about the Motown mogul, I was disappointed at how little I discovered."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The show moves beyond being a welcome nostalgia fest and becomes an urgent rallying cry for us all to rediscover our Motown mojo."
Dominic Cavendish The Telegraph
"This show is always enjoyable, if not always the transcendent hit you long for it to be."
Dominic Maxwell for The Times
"The first half is a mess - too many songs, several little more than abbreviated verses, and a comically bad script."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail