Tamla Motown founder and dynamo Berry Gordy turned 90 just three weeks ago, and his story is playing as the New Theatre's Christmas show, a restoring alternative to the tide of glass slippers and beanstalks lapping up against the shores of Oxfordshire just now.
After a slightly hasty start where we flitted from one large-cast number to another, we kicked in to the rags-to-riches story of Gordy and his record label, with his later struggles to keep afloat, as rivals proffering suitcases bulging with dollars beat on the doors to tempt away his top billing acts, until he sold out in 1988 for $60 million. As expected, we took in the struggles of black men and women to make a foothold in a tough, white world; the race element was strikingly illustrated by newsreel footage of the Joe Louis – Max Schmeling Heavyweight fight of June 1938, where the white man was repeatedly floored by the black man.
This was one instance of characteristically vivid back projection in the set design, of which other notable examples were the assassination of both Kennedys, speeches by Martin Luther King, and Vietnam. These effects supplemented the built 3D sets; opening, closing and shifting with oiled precision. The whole was constantly saturated in primary colours, so that the succession of scenes, individually evanescent, transcended gaudiness in assuming a lasting effect of great beauty.
I felt the show slightly fell between the two stools of, on the one hand, furnishing us with a strong narrative and, on the other, giving us a tribute band-esque rendering of the glorious songs. That said, the prime achievements of Gordy and Tamla Motown were addressed: the bringing of black musicians into the musical mainstream in the U.S., the promotion of some of the biggest selling music stars ever, and the establishment of a 'Hits Factory' - minting the product and then manipulating it at speed for future re-use.
It was a shame, though perhaps inevitable, that no one song was played at its full length, and if I'm picky I did remark a couple of slightly jarring details – Gordy thumping out a treble dance tune on the piano from the left-hand end of the keyboard, and on occasion the dancers at opposite ends of a horizontal line-up moved noticeably out of sync - but otherwise the tunes and choreographed moves came at us quick, slick and handsome.
Of the songs, Dancing in the Street was a fizzer, with Nicole Nyarambi a strong Martha (of the Vandellas). Nathan Lewis made a slightly lightweight Smokey Robinson, though not helped by the subterranean band's disinclination to ease off the volume for his reedy counter-tenor. And talking of Smokey, I wept bitter tears over the absence of his classic Tears of a Clown and the astonishingly atonal The Tracks of My Tears! As Diana Ross, wearing a mantle of ever-greater importance as the tale wore on and transmogrifying from Gordy's pupil into the inadvertent agent of his destruction, Karis Anderson had bags of warm personality, though her voice was generically powerful rather than distinctive. Of the principals, I thought Shak Gabbidon-Williams' voice was technically the most accomplished, with the widest range.
Understudy Cordell Mosteller rose to the lead rôle challenge in startling fashion, belting out his big numbers and convincing both as an iron fist within a velvet glove and in his artistic integrity, even as the (white) accountants hovered to grab control of the operation.
Make no mistake, this is a large-scale and costly show and the money's all up there in front of you. Seven hefty trucks hauled the sets and paraphernalia to Oxford, and the setting-up filled two and a half days. Wednesday night's audience lapped it up and, at the close, shouted for more.