United Kingdom Critic
The modern musical is finding itself at a crossroads, particularly those modern musicals that tell the stories of artists and expand on their legacy. I’ve noticed many have started to diversify from the traditional jukebox ‘tribute show’ style and adopt the stylistic stances of musicals that actually use songs as a vehicle to explore narrative and character. So when I finally got the chance to see ‘Motown: the Musical’, I looked forward to seeing how the show that celebrates the story of music giant and Motown founder Berry Gordy makes use of its new theatrical home to expand on the label’s rich history.
As the show’s first opening numbers whizzed by, I knew what path ‘Motown: the Musical’ took at the crossroads, and sadly, it was down the path of the formulaic jukebox musical that throws truncated hit after hit at its audience and interjects said hits with slices of dramatic action in a bid to thread the music together. It’s a genre of musical that is fast growing tired and bland, generically catering only to the nostalgia of the audience members who physically grew up with the music, rather than make an effort to expand on the legacy of the artists and introduce them and their narratives to new audiences. Motown has such a rich tapestry of incredible artists cementing its legacy in music history, along with an inspiring story rooted in overcoming racism and making soul music accessible to all, but this musical does little to elaborate on it and inspire new audiences.
Now, I can’t fault the cast for their infectious, unrelenting energy and soaring vocal prowess as they execute the vast catalogue of songs from the record label’s history. Their performances are committed, polished and sleek, and certainly don’t belong in the realm of tribute acts. Yet, when their musical montages are rather shoddily spliced together by a bland directorial vision from Charles Randolph-Wright, their performances feel underwhelmed against the backdrop of a weak theatrical dialogue that merely frames musical moments that don’t carry dramatic energy.
There are, however, glimmers of hope where the production does exhibit the music carrying dramatic energy, particularly at the end when Gordy finds the inner strength to return to the label’s 25th Anniversary party, but these moments are fleeting and sparse. It’s these glimmers of hope that could have made ‘Motown: the Musical’ truly great, with such an emotive and soulful catalogue just crying out to be transformed into characterful storytelling vehicles. I’ve seen this glimmer in incredibly successful musicals that draw upon excellent catalogues of iconic artists, and it only makes me more frustrated with what this production could have been. Take a look at The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’, Buddy Holly’s ‘Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story’ and, more recently, Cilla Black’s ‘Cilla: the Musical’, and you’ll see just how incredible artist-centric musicals can be.
It isn’t just the way that music serves as an exceptionally powerful storytelling device in those aforementioned musicals, though - it’s also about the way that music is represented in the theatrical context. All of those musicals used actor-musicians to capture the live, raw energy and presence of a song’s essence onstage, and even in musicals that don’t use actor-musicians for this purpose, the band is physically present onstage, allowing us to have a shared performative connection with the very act of music being made and experienced. In ‘Motown: the Musical’, then, you can imagine my disappointment when I saw that the band were archaically placed into the pit under the stage, and then my utter frustration at seeing actors swanning around above them waving around real instruments. It really is an absolute mystery to me, as well as a real shame.
What isn’t a mystery, however, is just how bland and formulaic ‘Motown: the Musical’ behaves as a theatrical production. While it may have an energetic cast that do their best to uphold the material, this is one production I feel let down and underwhelmed.
‘Motown: the Musical’ is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 17th November and then continues on tour. For more information and tickets, visit https://motownthemusical.co.uk/tour/venue-schedule-tickets/
The full up to date cast and creative list is available here: https://motownthemusical.co.uk/tour/cast-creative/