Book: Berry Gordy
Director: Charles Randolph-Wright
Reviewer: Lauren Humphreys
Eight hundred dollars, a loan from his family, was all it took for Berry Gordy to set up the legendary Motown Records. Flash forward to 1983, and the eve of Motown’s 25th anniversary. Gordy is reflecting on his career at a point where the label is in deep decline, it’s biggest stars having left for better deals with bigger bucks. He sits at home deciding whether to attend the celebration in his honour. Thankfully, this self-reflection takes us back, right back to Detroit and the foundations of Hitsville USA and to those sublime, timeless tunes – an astonishing 57 number one hits.
And thank goodness for those hits, essentially, Motown the Musical is an extremely sanitised version of events written by Gordy himself. While it tracks Gordy’s infamous and adulterous relationship with Diana Ross (which produced a child, of whom there’s no mention here) at exasperating length, and tries to tackle some more serious themes of the era: JFK’s assassination, Vietnam, the race riots, its clunky and often embarrassingly simplistic script suffers badly in order to shoe-in another hit, it’s choc-full of cheesy lines: “that little Stevie is a wonder” as Wonder appears as a child with his head bobbing wildly (cringe). In sharp contrast, many recent jukebox musicals have managed to weave a decent story around the songs, Jersey Boys, Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon to name a few. It’s very much greatest hits and an exceedingly lazy script, and many of these glorious songs are frustratingly truncated, however, if you revel in the music alone, and the sheer number of songs (50) then you are in for an entertaining evening.
The set is sparse and simplistic and complemented by colourful projections, so it’s down to the hard-working cast to deliver the goods. The large ensemble double and triple-up (and more) as the rest of the fabulous Motown roster, including Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, The Jackson 5 and The Temptations, now stars of their own hit Broadway musical and writers Holland, Dozier, Holland, and do so with energy. Those with a larger role are Shak Gabbidon-Williams, a fine singer, as a conflicted Marvin Gaye and Nathan Lewis as Gordy’s life-long friend Smokey Robinson. Karis Anderson is a competent singer but her portrayal of Diana Ross neither sounds/acts or looks like the diva and the time spent in this already long musical to her relationship with Gordy, seriously outstays its welcome. The audience is left asking why are these greatest hits are being severely cut short when we are subjected to this mortifying cheese-fest. It also needs to be said that this is quite possibly the worst diction this reviewer has heard in many a year.
It skims the surface of Motown’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles and Gordy’s insistence on mainstreaming or prematurely ageing his young and hip roster into old-fashioned middle of the road entertainers. Ultimately the move signified the loss of credibility and cool of the label.
The directorial choices are also somewhat baffling. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a tribute concert or a musical (there’s some audience interaction which entirely breaks down the fourth wall), which means the audience is unclear how to behave – it has arrived in Glasgow on the back of some controversy at a previous venue where audience members were asked to leave due to rowdy, concert-goer behaviour, as the rest of the audience had paid their hard-earned cash to enjoy the musical’s storyline as well as music. Unfortunately the problems seem to have travelled with it. The show is prefaced by an announcement to respect other audience members (unheard of in the venue), which is duly ignored by a section of the audience who are here for a sing-along, and who then cause major disruption as they refuse to leave when their behaviour is challenged by fellow audience members and staff of the venue. Props to the cast who manage to ignore the off-stage drama.
These songs are some of the finest ever written, performed by some of the most talented artists of all time, and the cast largely deliver, of that there’s no question, but this quite frankly awful script lets these talented performers and the Motown legacy down pretty badly.
Runs until 16 November 2019 | Image: Tristram Kenton