The music that not only shook the world but helped bridge the racial divide of a segregated America is the driving force of Charles Rudolph-Wright's flawed but hugely entertaining production Motown the Musical (Shaftesbury Theatre).
The name Motown is synonymous with its founder Berry Gordy who, with just $800 borrowed from his family, formed Motown records and launched the careers of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and many other artists. Collectively, Motown artists achieved over 57 No1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, claiming over 148 weeks of chart toppers, and united people of all ages and races.
The story of Berry Gordy and Motown is rather confusingly told moving back and forth in time and flitting between multiple actors and although Gordy's relationship with Diana Ross is touched upon, you learn little of his private life. Nevertheless, there are many poignant moments such as eight-year-old Berry's pride when black American boxer Joe Louis knocked out German Max Schmeling in the first round of the historic 1938 boxing match ("a victory with great political and racial implications") or being told by a local radio DJ that his white listeners would not want to hear black music, or his dismay when Diana Ross and other top names are lured away from Motown records by lucrative contracts from major record labels.
It is the music, though, that speaks volumes and even if we are treated to shortened version of such classics as I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Dancing In The Street, Please Mr Postman, My Guy, Reach Out and Touch and Ain't No Mountain High Enough among the seemingly endless hits these infectious songs still prove irresistible. There is too exhilarating choreography of non-stop movement by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams and an amazing band under the musical direction of Gareth Weedon who makes the music truly come alive in sound, motion and emotion.
Berry Gordy is powerfully portrayed by American actor / singer Cedric Neal and there are lifelike impersonations of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye by Lucy St Louis, Charl Brown and Jordan Shaw (replacing an indisposed Sifiso Mazibuko on the evening I attended) respectively. Lucy St Louis in particular nails Diana Ross's determination and breathy vocals, while Jordan Shaw makes a charismatic Marvin Gaye and Charl Brown captures the sweetness of Smokey Robinson's voice, and Eshan Gopal is a delightful young Michael Jackson. I should add that the show's 50 songs are put across with plenty of pizzazz by the entire cast.
I'm sure this energetic, relentlessly feel good musical will have you dancing in the street afterwards.
Motown the Musical
Runs at the Shaftesbury Theatre until February 18 2017Last modified: April 6, 2021