Berry Gordy is the name in Motown music, so it makes sense that a performance about Motown would be based around him. The script was written by Gordy himself, making this an autobiographical musical. While his credentials are certainly impressive, you can tell that Gordy doesn’t have too many criticisms of himself. This leads to a story that while intriguing and exciting seems a little bit disingenuous and self-serving. Still, there are many enjoyable parts in the production, and Motown lovers should find themselves enjoying the performance.
The actual story of Motown is a long journey full of heartbreak, drama, and racial injustice. Motown the musical, however, is quite devoid of most of these once you get past the service. This is not a learning experience nor is it a time to expect a huge emotional response from the audience. Due to the nature of the production, it simply cannot draw out the real meaning of the struggles that occurred during Motown’s rise. This is more of a “popcorn” musical. Viewers who enjoy the biggest Motown hits of the era will undoubtedly appreciate their performances on the stage. But they won’t walk away with a newfound respect for the major players of the time – at least not more than they already had when they came in.
Don’t expect to be blown away by the writing or direction here. The script seems unnecessarily forced at times and refuses to address the major issues. It also paints Berry Gordy as a relatively infallible hero. Yes, he was hugely important for the success of many of these musicians. But he wasn’t perfect, and his omission of many of his own flaws taints the entire production as something that is wholly dishonest.
If the script is where the production fails, the cast and crew are where it succeeds. Even though some of the songs are placed in peculiar spots, the performances are well worth the price of admission. With pop classics and ballads from Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and more, any Motown fan will be stunned by the talent of the singers, dancers, and musicians. Carl Spencer gives us a fantastic portrayal of Marvin Gaye, and Natalie Kassanga is right there with him as Diana Ross, belting out tunes that could impress the diva herself. If you want to see a wonderful Motown concert, then this musical is perfect for you. Just don’t come expecting an in-depth look at the issues and challenges that were prevalent in the era of Motown.
The Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End is an ample venue for this performance, and the sound direction works beautifully with the acoustics. We have to give credit to the performers, as they take a lackluster script and story and turn it into something worth watching thanks to their musical talent and incredible charisma. This may not be a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it is certainly an entertaining concert.
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