Review: 5***** Motown the Musical Shaftesbury Theatre- @MotownMusical @Shaftesbury1911

#Tweetingit – 5***** A dream begins on the production line at Fords in Detroit. $800 loan creates a musical dynasty and soundtrack to our lives. Motown is the word!

At the Motown 25 TV Special, Marvin Gaye described what the label meant to him…it’s about love songs, guy and girl songs, songs of protest and anger, songs of wounds left unattended for far too long, songs to dance to…make love to; music pure and simple; hard, soulful if you insist, full of promise and determination; Motown is yesterday, today and forever.  Who am I to argue with a genius? I’ve been a fan since I was old enough to switch the radio on, and wondered if I would set the bar too high and be disappointed by this much heralded musical.   But it ticked every single box in the theatre reviewer’s handbook.

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A stunning introduction is assured with a medley of hits featuring the Temptations and Four Tops, styled as a battle of the stars. The story begins prior to the aforementioned TV Special, as Smokey Robinson argues with Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records. Gordy feels unloved and neglected by the stars he nurtured and resents them for leaving him. In a fit of pique he is refusing to appear.  His mind drifts back to the 1930s and recalls Joe Louis striking a blow for the black man, defeating Max Schmeling to take the World Heavyweight title. We flash forward to the 1950s and Gordy is trying to make his way as a songwriter. His early successes are well documented as Jackie Wilson makes a brief, though electric appearance performing Reet Petite and To be loved. Gordy is however frustrated by the lack of control and resolves to form his own record company. With a family loan of $800, he purchases a house on 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. The house is soon converted into a recording studio and Hitsville, USA is born.

A compact narrative of the Motown story mingles with a beautifully staged selection of

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hits. The Miracles Shop around, Marvin Gaye’s Stubborn kind of fellow and Marvelettes’ Please Mr postman, the label’s first US chart topper mark the label’s early hits. The ‘no-hit’ Supremes soon take their bow, only finding success when matched with the gifted Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. The hits keep on coming with Martha and the Vandellas Dancing in the street, possibly the ultimate Motown anthem filling the auditorium with energy. Back screens provide historical perspective as the story develops; the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King; civil rights movement and Detroit race riots are all key signposts.

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Motown’s cultural significance is also examined as the first black music label owned and operated by blacks.  The use of an all-white sales staff to promote the label’s music is rightly highlighted as a paradox in the Motown story; and shows how Gordy’s pragmatism allowed the label to flourish in the way it did.  The main focus of the story is however Gordy’s relationship with Diana Ross and their long standing affair. Ross naturally gained an edge as Gordy poured his energy into the promotion of her career, often at the expense of other artists. Marvin Gaye’s petulance and leverage as Gordy’s brother in law also provide a compelling sub-plot when their bickering starts to boil over.

As the 1970s dawn and the Vietnam War rages, Gaye threatens to go on strike as Gordy

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refuses to release the now seminal What’s going on. He fears the politically charged album will ruin Gaye’s image as a sex symbol; but eventually relents and another classic in the Motown stable is born.  It represents a shift in the label’s output as songs become overtly political; War and Ball of confusion are performed here and remain great examples of the protest song.  The 1970s of course mean flairs and afro hair styles; but it also means the Jackson 5! They almost bring the house down with an irresistible medley of hits.  Ross inevitably looms large as her solo career takes off and the label bankrolls films as a showcase for her talents.  The 1980s sadly mark Motown’s final breath as an independent label, as Rick James’ Superfreak, Teena Marie’s Square Biz and Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday help to keep the label afloat. The show finishes where it started with Motown 25 and a glorious finale featuring all the players.

motownpicThe narrative is concise and gives a fair account of the label’s more controversial moments. The choreography and design is stunning with the guy and girl groups looking immaculate.  The casting is perfect as the players look and sound uncannily like the characters they play. Charl Brown is almost a doppelganger of Smokey Robinson, while Sifiso Mazibuko sings beautifully as Marvin Gaye. Cedric Neal as Berry Gordy and Lucy St. Louis as Diana Ross are also bedrocks in an outstanding cast.  The songs are timeless and more relevant now than ever.  Motown the Musical is a celebration of life, I want to go again!!!

Words and Music: The Legendary Motown Catalogue

Book:  Berry Gordy

Director: Charles Randolph-Wright

Producer: Berry Gordy

Musical Supervision & Arrangements: Ethan Popp

Musical Director: Gareth Weedon

Choreographers: Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams

Booking Link: https://tickets.shaftesburytheatre.com

Box Office: 020 7379 5399

Booking until: October 2017

 

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About Playhouse Pickings

Theatre blog run by Rhiannon Lawson; a civil servant, extreme tea drinker and theatre reviewer.
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