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MOTOWN THE MUSICAL (REVIEWS)
Two differing viewpoints on MOTOWN THE MUSICAL now open in London at The Shaftesbury Theatre

From Sharon Davis:

PREVIEW PERFORMANCE

“In many ways London is a natural home for us. England opened her arms to our first Motortown Revue in 1965 and gave us the gateway to Europe and the world. The music, drama and showmanship of Motown were made for the West End.” Berry Gordy. Since that iconic tour, and the opening of the Tamla Motown label where in March ’65 The Supremes kicked off with “Stop! In The Name Of Love” (TMG 501), the UK quickly became the company’s biggest selling market outside America. In fact, over the years the importance of this market meant the London office was granted permission to choose releases more suitable to a British and European market. Smokey and the Miracles’ “The Tears Of A Clown” and Diana Ross’ “I’m Still Waiting” are prime examples. The former I sadly recall wasn’t in the Musical and this leads me to comment that perhaps gearing the show more towards our market wouldn’t have gone amiss. Reference to our wonderful pirate radio stations is made via a little sequence to impress how vital they were in breaking Motown artists across the world - not included in the American show of course - but that’s all.

As expected, The Musical has been hyped beyond words for weeks now, and having seen one of the previews ahead of the official opening, it’s a full-on show where the music speaks for itself of course, starting with the much loved interaction between singers playing The Temptations and the Four Tops. Slick in dress and routine, they whip up the initial excitement of what’s to come. Throughout, the dance and song routines are top notch: check out the Jackson 5 or Marvin Gaye, but trying to emulate Stevie Wonder was a laughable episode. The production is exquisitely colourful as depicted by the dress of the day, vibrant and glamorous; the stage sets are basic yet defining in their interpretation of location, and the dialogue is direct and entertaining.

The story starts rightly enough with Jackie Wilson, Berry haggling with his family for the few hundred dollars to start his dream company and the introduction of Smokey Robinson. Full credit to the actors playing both parts; enjoyable and believable. However, with the introduction of The Supremes, other acts fell into the shadows, as the love story between Diana and Berry emerged and took over. And still the music played on, and again credit where due, the ladies playing The Marvelettes and The Supremes got their choreography just right, if somewhat exaggerated, but Diana Ross was way off base and not a patch on the lady who played her in the Broadway show. There were one or two things that also needed to be addressed: silly things like a little off-lighting, false starts and late vocals which can, of course, easily be ironed out. So, the Motown story travelled on through the struggling early days, with snapshots of the Detroit riots, Vietnam War and other civil rights issues that plagued America (and the world) during the sixties. All the while the music played on, crossing political and racial divides, encouraging dancing in the streets not fighting in them and killing each other. The significance of the Sound of Young America is banged home time and again; the scale of its success against the personal struggles and broken hearts is truly significant in the growth of this music empire. But, is it the Motown story? Well, kind of. And this is what I think will niggle at Motown fans, leading me to think that perhaps this Musical is aimed squarely at mainstream music lovers, and not Motown fans, like myself, dedicated and loyal from day one who will probably view it in the same vein as the “Magic of Motown” tours where unknown singers/actors put a singalong show together encouraging audience participation.

Loved the quick insight into changing Motown during the eighties, with Rick James and Teena Marie, who introduced the funk into the company, while the Commodores passed through with no Lionel in sight or mention. See, it’s easy to recall those who were left out and indeed the songs that were omitted, and charging high ticket prices for a musical that offers no leading lady, or named artist, is extremely naughty, irrespective of how credible members of the cast are.

Having seen the show in New York and in London, I compared the programmes and was taken aback to see members of the American cast included in the picture sections when clearly they’re not performing on the British stage. Not on and how disrespectful to the artists.

Summing up then, and personal feelings aside, Motown:The Musical is exactly what the advertisement says, and nothing more. An entertaining evening out that brings alive the music that formed the backdrop of our lives, reminding us of the artists responsible for those memories, and for that I’m grateful.

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From Sylvia Hampton, edited by David Nathan

MARCH 7, 2016 PERFORMANCE

Trying to condense the history of the Motown empire into a two-hour musical is essentially an impossibility. From its humble beginnings on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit to its emergence as not simply a record company but a globally-recognized musical genre unto itself, the Motown story is filled with challenge, triumph, heartbreak, loss, power and achievement. The challenge of creating something for live theatre that captures the essence of the music and as importantly, the key characters involved seems to have been ably met by director Charles Randolph-Wright, choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams and musical arranger/conductor Ethan Popp.

With an all-UK cast – the sole American performer is Texan Cedric Neal (who has lived in the UK since 2014) who plays the key role of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. (on whose 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown the musical is based) – the musical plots the story of Gordy’s initial entry into the world of music as a songwriter, having one of his songs recorded by then-U.S. superstar Jackie Wilson. Gordy’s initial frustration at persuading his family to lend him the funds to start his own record label is soon countered by the initial success the company enjoys with The Miracles, led by Smokey Robinson – who remains a friend of Gordy’s throughout the entire story – followed by The Marvelettes, Mary Wells and, of course, The Supremes.

Given the need to focus on the highlights of the Motown story, it’s inevitable that some artists simply don’t get represented in the show and while that may gall hardcore followers of the Motown brand (who have been steadfast in their loyalty to the label, some since its inception), it’s unavoidable. Some attention is justifiably paid to The Temptations but not nearly as much to The Four Tops – and in this writer's opinion, more emphasis could have been put on Stevie Wonder's contribution to Motown starting in the early (although Marvin Gaye does get more prominence in particular with references to his seminal “What’s Going On” milestone album).

As a major aspect of the storyline, the well-known relationship between Berry Gordy and Diana Ross, first as lead singer of The Supremes and then as an emerging global icon, adds an important human element and dimension to the musical. Both lead actors – Neal as Gordy (who – unlike in reality – sings throughout the show) and Lucy St. Louis as Ross – bring energy and power to their vocal performances. There’s been some criticism of St. Louis for the amount of ‘power’ she brings to the usually-considered (though unjustifiable) ‘light’ vocal approach of Ross; however, it’s appropriate for a production that relies so heavily on musical content.

Other actors of note include Sifiso Mazibuko as a charming and then-somewhat combative Gaye and Charl Brown as a sympathetic and sensitive Smokey Robinson. Reviewers and audience alike seem impressed with the portrayal of a young Michael Jackson after The Jackson 5 join Motown in the late ‘60s – and while creditable, the appearance of one of the three principals cast for the role is not the showstopping moment anticipated, in this writer’s view.

The conclusion of the story centres around Gordy’s initial refusal to attend the 25th anniversary television special in 1983 and how he reluctantly concedes, is spotted by Diana Ross and brought onto the stage surrounded by the key artists who contributed to the label’s growth including latter day names like Rick James and Teena Marie. Is Motown The Musical the definitive portrayal of a company that became a household name worldwide? No – and it makes no claims to be. Are those who will be disappointed that the second tier of Motown artists aren’t given any mention? Yes. Is the musical worth seeing? Absolutely. It’s entertaining, moves well and is a reminder for all of us whose lives have been touched by the music of Motown of the enormous difference Gordy, the artists, producers, songwriters, musicians and executives have made, the world over.




About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.
  
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