The Prickle (@ThePrickle) January 29, 2017
Another Broadway import, Once: The Musical, used to advertise itself in London as “The greatest gig in the West End”. Well, one gig closes and another one opens: if advance ticket sales and the audience’s response is anything to go by, Motown: The Musical is the new “greatest gig in the West End” and it’s here to stay. Live on stage: Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Commodores, Smokey Robinson, and The Jackson 5, to name just a few.
In a similar vein to other jukebox musicals, Motown: The Musical is the perfect show for visitors to London who might not speak English but still want to enjoy a West End quality show. But it is testament to the producers that it features the most universally excellent cast of singers I’ve ever seen assembled for a West End musical (led by the virtuosically talented Cedric Neal as Berry Gordy), along with a spectacular band that run the full gamut of Motown’s decades of hits, from brassy jive to orchestral ballads, synth-led funk and everything in between. It’s also worth mentioning that the quality of the sound tech and mix is the best you’ll ever hear in a London theatre, not surprising since Motown’s creator Berry Gordy is the show’s writer and producer.
But while audiences are no doubt attending for the parade of hits, the story is good too. The show doesn’t shy away from Gordy’s underpaying of his artists, the obsession with turning his beloved partner Diana Ross into a business, nor the difficulty of managing black artists within the ingrained racism of the music industry. However, since Gordy wrote and produced the musical, Berry Gordy is the main character, and the story portrays him – without too much exaggeration here – as a hardworking genius with a heart of gold. Still, the show is a piece of musical theatre and not just a concert; the famous songs’ lyrics take on new depth against the backdrop of oppression and strained relationships.
Where the show sounds spectacular, it doesn’t always look spectacular. The set is often completely bare, though sometimes video projections and moving perpendicular lines are used to brilliant effect, along with a few simple set pieces, to convey the hundreds of locations within the show. The choreography is decent enough. But the iconic songs are performed so well, and sound so good, it doesn’t matter. (The original Broadway cast recording on iTunes is a pale imitation of what lies in store for you at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre.) Leave your cynicism at the door and celebrate music history.