THERE’S no business like showbusiness. In fact, these days, it seems there’s no business like staging shows about showbusiness; and whatever you make of Motown The Musical (****) – currently at the Playhouse for a three-week run - it’s certainly a show with a mighty musical story to tell. Based on the biography of Berry Gordy, the inimitable founder of the Tamla Motown label in Detroit in 1959, the show takes an unashamedly one-sided view of the Motown story, majoring on the sheer brilliance of the early years, and on how the label’s huge 1960s success in making black music part of the American mainstream eventually made it a target for the big corporations that finally ended its history as an independent company, 20 years after its controversial move to Los Angeles in 1972.
Motown the Musical, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****
Turns of the Tide, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***
It also foregrounds Gordy’s romance with Diana Ross of The Supremes, in a way that slightly sidelines Motown stars who were arguably even more gifted, from Mary Wells and Stevie Wonder to Marvin Gaye and Martha Reeves of the Vandellas; it also places too much theatrical emphasis on Ross’s later career as a solo diva. And most seriously, for the quality of the show as theatre, it suffers both from a real unevenness in performance – Edward Baruwa’s performance as a grumpy, driven Gordy is convincing, Karis Anderson’s glamorous Diana Ross a little short of soul – but from some truly brutal orchestration, cramming in so many superb songs, from Dancing In The Streets to Heard It Through The Grapevine, that most of them are reduced to short, abruptly ended extracts rather than full performances.
Where Motown The Musical scores heavily and irresistibly, though, is in its sense of the vital importance of Motown as the voice of the new black American of the 1960s and 70s, full of a vital, angry and yet joyful creative energy born of the persisting racism and injustice of American society, and of the resistance to it. In the background of the show, there’s a superb use of projections by designers Daniel Brodie and David Korins, to conjure up the age of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, reaching a climax in a superb first-act finale around Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
And always, there’s the music – beautiful, sexy, exuberant, irrepressible, from My Guy to My Girl and beyond. If ever a music label mattered, it was Tamla Motown, in its first two decades; and for all its ups and downs, this show pays an unforgettable, emotional tribute to it.
At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the two showbiz figures on stage come from much closer to home, in Lynn Ferguson’s latest Play, Pie And Pint drama Turns Of The Tide (***). As the title suggests, the scene is a cruise ship on which ageing double act The Heather Belles – aka sisters Sandy and Rose – have been strutting their traditional Scottish stuff for many a decade. Now though, times are changing; and as the two prepare in their cabin for the final show of the cruise, we gradually learn that they may be facing a longer lay-off than the two-week Christmas break they’ve promised themselves.
There’s something soft-edged about Ferguson’s entertaining script that doesn’t quite do justice to the potential of the situation; in particular, there’s no really sharp debate about the couthy Scottish material the sisters perform, and what the alternatives might be. Yet the story has an intriguing twist in the tail, as the sisters finally discover some unexpected truths about their origins; and although there’s a vague, unsatisfying sense of a play set up to tell a slightly different story from the one it ends up with, a pair of warm-hearted performances from Libby McArthur and Julie Coombe, with Mark McDonnell as the gruff northern contortionist in the next cabin, help to deliver an enjoyable hour of situation comedy, with an occasional pleasing touch of the surreal.
Motown The Musical until 8 December; Turns Of The Tide, run ended