If there ain’t no mountain high enough, there certainly isn’t praise enough to heap upon Lucy St Louis, the West End’s latest superstar diva who plays the role of Diana Ross in Motown The Musical, the latest juke-box/tribute musical production to be imported to the West End from Broadway.
St Louis is a knock-out in every respect. She sings Diana Ross songs better than Ross ever did, looks fabulous (in iconic outfits courtesy of Esosa which readily reflect the times when Ross was a Supreme in every sense) and has charm and wit in spades. Her personal charisma flows from the stage like lava from a volcano, with just as much heat, and, particularly in the Las Vegas section in Act Two, St Louis has the audience in the palm of her hand, even when enticing the odd one or two to come on stage and sing with her.
Watching and listening to St Louis chart the rise and rise of Ross is worth the entire evening and, indeed, so good is she that it is often difficult not to wish that Motown did not spend more time telling the detailed story of her career. (We will have to wait for Dreamgirls for that.)
But Motown is not about Ross.
Rather it is about a revolution in music and culture led by the dogged and unswerving conviction of one man – Berry Gordy – who marshalled black musicians and gave them a platform, publicity, promotion and a home. Gordy presided over a label which boasts a catalogue of songs which, essentially, define a generation, possibly two.
He represented and made superstars of many – Ross, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Teena Marie, Smokey Robinson and countless more. The repertoire includes hits such as I Heard It On The Grapevine, My Guy, Please, Mr Postman, My Girl, Stop! In the name of Love, Happy Birthday, Remember Me and, of course, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough which, not unexpectedly, closes the show. On any view of it, this is an impressive score for a musical entertainment.
The orchestra, led by Gareth Weedon, is immensely talented, scorchingly hot in the best musical sense, and they provide superb accompaniment throughout. Brass, especially, is well served, and the sound design from Peter Hylenski ensures that every crevice of the capacious Shaftesbury Theatre experiences every precise note, every toe-tapping melody.
Gordy’s rise and fall as musical impresario cum Vinyl Godfather is set against a kaleidoscope of events which shaped civil and cultural changes in America: the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the end of segregation, the Vietnam War. Mostly, however, these events are glossed over and the far reaching consequences of them are trivialised. This is not a production which revels in either fact or history – it’s about the tunes.
Gordy is used as the sort-of narrative through line for the piece. He is the entire pole around which tents of other musicians rise and fall. The details of his love and business life are sketchily covered. You have a sense of what they were, what they cost him and what he gained from them, but no true or deep understanding. As the song suggests, you get the feelin’ but not any real detail. He is shown as a stubborn kind of fellow and a breathtaking guy, but not as a real person.
This is not any fault of Cedric Neal who plays Gordy with tense focus and complete concentration. He sings well, is wholeheartedly in every scene, and proves equal to the task of both comedy and drama. But, the book, written by thereal Gordy, does not really put any meat on his bones and, as an audience member, one never has the sense that you’ve really got a hold on Gordy or who he really was.
Odd, peculiar moments abound. The most idiotic is the scene where Gordy appears, apparently naked in bed with St Louis’ Ross, having been unable to rise to the occasion of consummating their relationship. Although establishing that Ross remains nobody, as somebody hasn’t loved her, the scene does not really advance either character or plot. When the couple eventually part, it is not because of sexual dysfunction. So the purpose of the scene is part of the ball of confusion which hovers over most of the “plot”.
In truth, there is no plot. This is an occasion for celebrating the Motown catalogue and little more. In no sensible way can Motown be called a musical. It is, however, an exuberant concert of hit songs, most of which are performed with gusto and glee, and rapturously received by an audience gagging for them.
Diction is poor throughout. Even though the lyrics of many songs are well known – and sung by over zealous members of the audience to create a particular set of inner city blues for anyone interested in hearing the professionals on stage in action – they are difficult to make out. For the most part, the cast seem to adopt an “all I need to get by” approach to the words, expecting the audience’s knowledge to aid in working out what’s going on. It may not be war with the words, but you do feel as though the lyrics have been heard and passed along the grapevine.
Still, there are many pleasures from the staging which is colourful and constantly changing. Some of designer David Korins’ work here is very clever indeed, particularly the use of swirling psychedelic colours and patterns, but other aspects – the evocation of the Bahamas, for instance – don’t make you hear a symphony or establish any hold on your imagination. Natasha Katz’ lighting is spectacularly bright, which is perhaps all that can be expected given the happening feel to almost every moment.
There is astonishing work from Eshan Gopal who channels the exuberance and breathless energy and vigour of a very young Michael Jackson. His dancing and singing was flawlessly reminiscent of the child superstar – Gopal is another breathtaking guy, in every sense. He proves the adage that adults should not share a stage with child actors. It takes no effort to imagine every other member of the cast, except perhaps St Louis, screaming inside their own heads: Stop! In the name of Love!
The choreography from Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams is great, although surprisingly the ensemble do not execute it all with the kind of perfect precision one associates with this music. Gopal, however, is a singular exception. His footwork is endlessly impressive.
But the music is the point here. Motown is all about making the audience want to dance in the streets and in this it succeeds without qualification.
If you want a good time involving music and dancing, hot foot it to the Shaftesbury Theatre. If you want to see a jukebox musical, try Jersey Boys or Beautiful. Or reminisce about Memphis, a musical which covered similar territory but with heart, style and purpose.
If you want to see a true star – go see St Louis in action. She is simply waiting to be loved.