Motown The Musical has arrived at The Playhouse Edinburgh for a three week (Tue 20 Nov to Sat 8 Dec) pre-Christmas run to tell the story of what has now become a legend, a success story of “The American Dream” come true through the only way possible – the music of Motown. That last part is sadly where for me the problems start here, and as someone who has loved and collected soul music in all its many variants for decades (and the many songwriters, house bands and producers associated with them), I make this last comment with some regret as this show, for me, is simply falling far short of its potential to be not only a great musical, but a great human interest story.
The biggest problem here seems to be the success of the subject matter itself. On the music front, there are so many hits there and so little time to get more than a few of them into the show; and as a result, we are far too often left with rushed segments of songs that disappointed me as a listener too often. There are also many Motown tribute shows out there at any time of the year, and many of them are very good, and that is another problem as far too often the performances here struggle to raise the show above “good tribute show” levels. Restricted time to tell the story is so evident here all the way through this show, and although we centre on what for many people was “the last days of Motown” - the 25th anniversary television special - and the founder of Motown himself, Berry Gordy Jnr, there is little new here for the fans, few new insights that I could find, as much of what was given out as “information” was on the “The Motown Story The First decade” 5 LP box set many years ago (1970).
The run through our early days of Motown and the “creation of stars” is glossed over very quickly, but there simply is not time here to expand upon the individual artists – Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes (originally The Primettes), Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye alone could easily fill a stage show on their own. We do get some extended human interests from the long standing relationship between Berry Gordy and Diana Ross, but its effects upon the whole company are only barely touched upon and, despite the personal involvement of Berry Gordy in this production, so many questions over the years still remain unanswered. This story is a very corporate PR re-telling of the Motown legend.
What of our performers though? Well, despite all my concerns over this show, Edward Baruwa as Berry Gordy is the shining light in this production. It is his authority in this role and a really fine “soul” voice that saves this show for me and his performances on-stage are when this production leaves “tribute show land”. Karis Anderson as Diana Ross does get plenty of opportunity to stamp her take on these great songs and is obviously having great fun with “Reach Out And Touch” and many others, but there is no believable relationship between her and Berry Gordy for me.
In a show like this, you were never going to fit everyone’s favourite Motown song into the show, and some of my favourites are missing here – Jackson 5 “I’ll Be There” and R Dean Taylor “There’s A Ghost in My House” (one of Motown’s few early white singer signings) to name only a few.
The one oddity in this show for me is the portrayal of Smokey Robinson (Nathan Lewis). Nathan does an OK job on the early songs of Smokey here, but simply does not have the vocal range or vocal warm tones of the original. Nathan also suffers from the fact that his importance in the Motown story and his relationship with Berry Gordy is never fully explored here, and his dramatic moments are not great ones (his talent is vocals). We do not get to hear two of my all-time favourite Smokey songs for some reason – “Tears of A Clown” and “I Second That Emotion”. These two songs need a mention because, for me, Smokey Robinson is one of the great songwriters and poets of his generation, and the lyrics of his songs were so important in proving to everyone that black writers could write more than just stereotyped “R & B” lyrics. Smokey Robinson was also an integral part in the Motown business machine and was at one time Vice-President of the company. We oddly get no mention of these facts here.
Marvin Gaye, performed by Shak Gabbidon-Williams also gives us some interesting vocal moments that raise the overall level of the show, but we get little insight into an often very troubled man who came eventually to a very unexpected death. A performance of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” of course had to be here, but it is again a shortened one. It would also have been nice here to re-instate the first hit-makers of this song, Gladys Knight & The Pips, to their rightful place in musical history here.
This at the end of the day though is the story of Motown, but it would have been nice to have had more time in the spotlight for the great songwriters that Motown had, and of course, one of the greatest “house bands” in history – “The Funk Brothers”.
Motown was a “music factory”, it also had its own in-house performers’ finishing school and the result often was artists being produced to sound like a factory output. This itself caused some issues at the time when the label was often forced to compete with its own acts, The Four Tops and The Temptations being only one example. As music and politics in America changed, Motown and few of the acts (The Temptations being one of the exceptions) seemed unable to move with the times and new artists like The Jackson Five and later The Commodores were desperately needed to give the company new blood and new hits. Some of these issues, and the early problems that black people, not only black recording artists and performers, faced in a highly prejudiced and segregated society are touched upon here without letting the issues take over the main story line.
For a major theatrical stage show there are a more than few moments of “just bad” here, and two that come to mind are these. Announcing Junior Walker & The All Stars to two people just coming on stage holding a guitar and a saxophone while the live “Motown Band” play music is just not good enough. Could an on stage saxophone player really not be found anywhere? Also, some strange psychedelic idea of what an offshore pirate radio station DJ in the UK at the time might have been like (who remembers when they were closed down?) was laughable at best.
For those of us who took to the early sounds of Motown and Soul music in the UK, many of us had a slightly different view to things. For us, a world away from the many racial and social-political issues of the day, all we had to concentrate on was the wonderful music of the artists, and for us in the UK that was via the EMI distributed Tamla/Motown label (the brand name outside the USA).
As an overall show though, Motown The Musical is going to be a big hit with audiences as these songs are so well known and so loved, but it is the songs that people are responding to here more than the show in my own opinion, and I have seen that same reaction at more than a few “Motown Tribute” shows over the years. In the end though, does this really matter as long as people go to the show, enjoy the music and come out of the theatre happy?
Review by Tom King