Motown the Musical's songs deliver, but the lack of story lets it down


Motown the Musical (Source: Alastair Muir)

Shaftesbury Theatre | ★★☆☆☆

If you don’t like at least one song released on the Motown label between 1960 and 1975, you’re utterly joyless and there’s something wrong with you. Berry Gordy’s hugely successful label discovered a young Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson among literally hundreds of others.

Many of their hits – perhaps too many – are reproduced here by a vocally talented cast, an effervescent house band and plenty of pizzazz. But the music was always going to deliver: as a piece of musical theatre, however, Motown barely passes muster.

The script is an overly-simplistic, trivial account of how Gordy went from zero to hero, nurturing his African American protégés through their careers during America’s turbulent civil rights era. The characters talk almost exclusively in cliches, spouting zingers like, “I’m never going to give up on my dream!” and “That Stevie really is a wonder.”

Thankfully, there’s never more than two or three minutes before someone bursts into song, although with around 50 tunes crammed into three hours, they last barely more than a minute each.

Culturally and politically seismic events are brushed off as an excuse to segue into another vaguely-related musical number, although the nadir is an excruciating audience participation segment featuring Diana Ross, which is in itself a reason to avoid this over-long tribute act with theatrical aspirations.