Motown the Musical may just be the ultimate jukebox musical. Short of putting a physical jukebox on the stage and playing a succession of the records once minted by the famous Detroit-based record label that emerged in the 1950s and made a succession of black solo artists and singing groups into global superstars, musicals don’t get more more like a parade of wall-to-wall hits than this.
But then no one but Berry Gordy – the founder of the label – has ever singlehandedly created and curated a catalogue quite like it. So he has more than earned his moment in the spotlight here, even if the script he has written (based on his self-penned history of the label) is inevitably a bit of a hagiography and full of clunky juxtapositions and worse one-liners. One is ultimately powerless to resist the onslaught of great songs.
It’s a pity that some of these are chopped up a bit and frequently cut off in their prime, but then there’s an awful lot of ground — and music — to cover. And here the execution of director Charles Randolph-Wright’s sleekly-designed production is absolutely faultless, as is the work of the music department led by musical supervisor Ethan Popp and musical director Gareth Weedon, and the glorious pumping energy created by Peter Hylenski’s sound design.
Cast as a retrospective view of the founding of the label and its early history, seen through the prism of a 25th anniversary celebration that was held in 1983, we are now another 33 years on from then, and some of these events have been variously fictionalised in other shows. So if there’s a palpable air of deja vu over Motown, that’s no fault of Gordy but a testament to his legacy: Memphis and Hairspray, both former tenants of the Shaftesbury, both chronicled the absorption of ‘race’ music into mainstream American pop, but it was Motown that was its source. And the 1981 Broadway show Dreamgirls – finally to get its West End premiere in November – is a thinly-disguised version of the story of Diana Ross the Supremes, whose tale forms a central thread of this show: Gordy dates Ross, but she eventually leaves the label.
There’s a lot of Diana Ross, and she’s impersonated with uncanny vocal accuracy by Lucy St Louis here, and physically represented by her trademark flamboyant costumes, brilliantly summonsed by Esosa. St Louis even does the walk-downs into the audience like Ross always did, and there’s a good bit of singalong participation, too.
There are also appearances by a politicised Marvin Gaye, a bouncing young Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, The Temptations and the Four Tops, among others, but the biggest star of the evening turns out to be Gordy himself, as played by Cedric Neal with a sincere, troubled earnestness and a fantastic voice of his own.
Read our opening night interviews here