Shaftesbury Theatre, London
IT GLITTERS! IT SINGS! IT MAKES SENSE. EVEN IN MAD TROUSERS!
I expected a big splashy jukebox musical, a-glitter with tearful Broadway sentiment and popster pizzazz. And indeed the tale of Berry Gordy’s legendary Motown record label is told through fantastic tribute renderings of its back-catalogue, the soundtrack of dates and disasters from 1959 onwards.
From the Four Tops and the Temptations – and the Commodores in their fabulously ridiculous trousers – to the Supremes and Jackson Five , it’s all there rendered at gale force twelve in innumerable changes of very shiny clothes (there are fifteen wardrobe and dresser jobs credited, and even so I can’t see how they manage). The choreography even catches with gloriously absurd precision those old-style Vegas moves: all acrobatic jerky unerotic knees-up , snake-hippery and synchronized pointing at the audience. Or, in really high emotion, the ceiling.
But rejoice! beyond the retro panache lies a thing of wit, dry intelligent self-knowledge. Berry Gordy himself wrote the book and put the show together with director Charles Randolph Wright. His groundbreaking black music label was – and remains – a serious dream from childhood, when he thrilled as all America – black and white – did, when the boxer Joe Louis beat the German Max Schmeling in 1938.
Gordy, who started as a songwriter (“Reet Petite” lies at his door) cites that prewar moment as a seed of his ambition, and is justifiably proud of how Motown powered through in an age of discrimination. Just as in the splendid recent MEMPHIS, set ten years before Motown took off, we see a radio DJ refusing at first to play “race music” but having to capitulate to demand.
The joy of this show is that for all the celebration, Mr Gordy does not spare himself: he frames the show – with nicely hokey domestic flashbacks – in the moment of its 25th anniversary in 1983, when artists who had left the label for big money gathered to mark the day, and the miffed 55-year-old founder refused to go. Until, of course, in the final scene he repents. In between, big numbers and small fragments are brilliantly chosen ; the man who insisted ”a song must tell a story” does not spare himself embarrassments. There are small misjudgements, spats with a tricky Marvin Gaye (Sifiso Mazibuko), a lifelong bromance with Charl Brown’s irresistible Smokey Robinson, and the long affair with Diana Ross even including a first night when he fails to come up to scratch in bed. Not to mention her subsequent exasperation with his being keener to give her “notes” after her shows than to take her to dinner. Cedric Neal is a wonderful Berry Gordy, always at the centre of things, showing the conflict of a creative spirit who turned midwife and mentor, and suffered the inevitable blowback when his big stars outgrew the label and left it in trouble. But there is no self-pity: just wry satisfaction in having “led them along a path I didn’t know was there”
Neal himself sings like a dream, as do all the vast ensemble who become successive groups in dizzying sequence. Lucy St Louis is pure Diana Ross, both in melancholy Billie-Holiday vein and doing her big Vegas number “Reach Out and Touch” while drawing two front-row punters onto the stage steps and getting them, and us, to sing along (one was a solid Dundonian lady who did fine, the other a very bluesy chap in a purple hat). As for Michael Jackson’s moment – ah, so long before the craziness and lawsuits – out of a tiny 12-year-old emerges a huge sorrowful bluesy voice, startling the 1968 Gordy into spluttering that this infant seemed to have lived thirty years of heartbreak, and protesting that he ought rather to sing something “a kid might sing”. That number is a huge ask of any child, but they’ve found four boys to share the part, all British: who knew we could breed mini-Jacksons so readily?
It’s a piece of history. The quarter-century takes in Luther King (Gordy made albums of his speeches), Vietnam, Kennedy’s assassination: in one fabulously funny, telling 1960s scene Smokey sings in Alabama flanked by armed police with batons snarling “No mixing!” to the black and white audience. What he sings is “You really gotta hold on me”.
Nice. And I am proud to have been on my feet when, on the opening night, the cast brought on the real Berry Gordy, 86 years old, laughing and thanking London for being one of the first, in 1965, to welcome Motown’s tour. And then, amazingly, on came the real Smokey Robinson…
Oh how we whooped. Yes, it’s more than a jukebox show.
box office 020 7379 5399 to 22 Oct