Motown the Musical
- Kelly Apter
- 22 November 2018
With a back catalogue to die for, Motown is the perfect subject for a stage musical – but not if it relies solely on its songs to please the crowd
Berry Gordy has achieved some phenomenal things in his life: written great songs, empowered black musicians at a time when few others did, started one of the most important record labels of all time. All of which made the world a better place – and surely earned him the right to employ somebody else to write the book for Motown the Musical. Sadly, he chose to take on the task himself and the consequences run deep in this well-meaning but meandering show about the label's formation, rise and subsequent struggles.
Firstly, the highlights – and there are 103 of them. Forty performers, on stage and in the pit, deliver each number with the same passion and power as the original artists (and in the case of Karis Anderson as Diana Ross, possibly more so). Between them, they sing 63 cracking songs from the Motown back-catalogue – some that have been largely lost to the annals of time, others out-and-out classics we all know the words to.
A clear highlight for everyone in the audience, is the arrival of a plucky young group of brothers trying to get signed. When the Jackson 5 launches into 'ABC' and 'I Want You Back', you get a genuine sense of how exciting it must have been to watch the real group back in the day. Likewise, hearing Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye sing 'What's Going On', Nathan Lewis as Smokey Robinson croon 'Being With Yo'u – or the aforementioned Anderson belt out 'Where Did Our Love Go?', the show is electric.
But the key to an unforgettable musical lies in its alchemy: an intelligent script, clever direction, captivating choreography, strong performances and superb songs all coming together. Something comparable West End shows, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Memphis do so well. By relying so heavily on songs and singers – regardless of how good they both are – Motown the Musical is only half the show it could be.