Motown. Few names are as resonant as the Detroit label that launched The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Created in 1959 by Berry Gordy, the independently owned label quickly became the conduit for African American talent in the city. Motown artists were targeted at the well-off white audience and were groomed on how to act on and off stage to maximise their appeal. But the success of the label was never simply a case of style over substance. Gordy also had some brilliant songwriters on side, including Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, and with their help he created classic songs that have clearly lost none of their power.
Dancing in the Streets is a celebration of Motown’s many hits and it wins immediate points for not being burdened with a dodgy Ben Elton script or with the kind of ludicrous crow-barred plot that characterise many West End wallows in musical nostalgia. In fact it most resembles The Rat Pack show now playing at the Savoy; it comes as no surprise to find that this was produced by the same company.
The set is very simple: a live band playing against a backdrop of pictures of former artists and the ‘Hitsville USA’ Motown offices. The aim is to recreate an old-fashioned music tour and the emphasis is very much on the music and performances. After all when you have songs as wonderful as Tracks of my Tears by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, spectacular sets are not really necessary. The quality of the songs was never going to be an issue with this show; the main question was whether the performers could pull off the difficult task of sounding like the originals whilst also exuding a level of onstage charm and personality.
Ray Charles once said that the essence of soul music is that it comes from inside you and speaks to your heart. Mere imitation of an artist’s vocal style and mannerisms alone is not sufficient. If this were the case then this production would be nothing more than Stars In Their Eyes with a bigger budget. Thankfully the best performances in his production take the vocal style of the originals as a starting point and then use it as a springboard. West End regular Ray Shell’s excellent rendition of What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted is the best example of this, the expressive vocals and cutting lyrics combining to strongly convey the sadness of love lost.
The test of great music has always been in its longevity. Any doubts about ability of the Motown sound to appeal to modern audiences dissipates very quickly as the strumming rhythmic bass lines, metronomic drumming and gospel harmonies start to take hold of the audience. The familiarity of the songs and tight execution by the band ensure that only the truly hardhearted would not soon be smiling. Whilst the pace of the show is not always consistent the last quarter is superb, brimming with energy and flair, including a passionate version of Marvin Gaye’s Lets Get it On.
The talented cast give performances that are full of heart and no little vocal talent. The harmonies throughout were excellent, in particular The Supremes and the Four Tops. There was also some very neat choreography, with one brilliantly cheesy routine by The Temptations standing out.
This is a surprisingly enjoyable production, and it’s a testament to the talents of the band and cast that they managed to pull it off. The performances hit the mark more often than not and, though in many respects the opposite of cutting-edge musical theatre, like most soul music the heart of this production is in just the right place.