You might call a British production of a Motown show in Detroit “bringing coals to Newcastle” — giving back to the Motor City the musical genre that was created here, on West Grand.
But with audiences eager to see live performances of that vintage Detroit sound and a dwindling number of original performers — at least, until the return of Berry Gordy Jr.’s “Motown: The Musical” —“Dancing in the Streets,” which plays the Fox for one night March 20, is willing to be your stopgap.
The musical is, unabashedly, structured around the music, with very little narrative.
“No story,” said British producer Derek Nicol of Flying Music, speaking by phone from London. “That’s the concept, it’s done in a concert-style fashion. There’s a little bit of narrative, the odd information piece. We take it that most people know about Motown — not the sort of stories that Berry Gordy could convey, being the creator. We stick to the music and the routines and it’s got a very fast, flowing feel throughout the show. It’s very much a feel-good show, where the audience participates, everybody knows the songs and the lyrics.
“The music tells the story, anyway.”
The music spans the Motown era starting in 1963, but also stretches into the solo years of some of its stars. Nearly 40 songs by Motown icons are featured, including tunes by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Temptations, Four Tops and Lionel Richie.
The seven young performers were chosen for the American tour from auditions in Philadelphia a few months ago. They will be costumed in vintage-inspired clothing and will be dancing routines inspired by the moves Cholly Atkins created for the original Motown stars. The show is backed up by a live five-piece band.
“It’s a workout,” said Bianca Ingram, 25, a recording artist and musical theater major from New Jersey, one of the young performers in the show.
“The dance moves are inspired by that time period,” she affirmed, down to the subtle arm motions choreographed for the ballads.
The actress comes from a musical family, the Ingrams, and has been singing at various gigs with her father, Butch, and uncles since she was a child. That includes singing Motown.
“If you’re performing music, at some point you’re going to hit a Motown song, that was a hit factory,” Ingram said. “I definitely was familiar with the music already. And I’m a Diana Ross fan, so I know her complete catalog.”
But although she sings many songs that Ross led, Ingram and the other performers aren’t impersonating specific Motown artists. “It’s a celebration of the music,” Ingram said. “We’re not being the people, it’s more an homage to them and the sound of that time.”
Ingram will be singing the Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman,” and several Ross solo hits, including “Endless Love,” and “Chain Reaction.” The latter song may be unfamiliar to most American fans, but it was a hit in England, and thus made it into this British production.
“ ‘Chain Reaction’ wasn’t truly part of early Motown, but the link is because it’s Diana Ross, and as part of the show, it’s very up,” said producer Nicol. His company has produced many music-related shows, including the Michael Jackson tribute “Thriller Live,” the Beatles celebration “Let it Be,” and “Rat Pack Live.”
The British have a special fondness for Motown, and Nicol is no exception. “There’s a real affinity with Motown from the very young to the people who grew up with it in the first place,” he said.
“I remember when the first Motown Revue came into the U.K. in the ’60s,” Nicol, the producer, added. “What was amazing about it was, it wasn’t just the songs but the performances by the artists who had all these dance moves, these slick movements. The U.K. had never seen anything like that.
“Today Motown is still being played on the radio or in shopping malls, everybody knows the individual artists, who all became very famous, and some of whom still tour today.”
Nicol, whose company has produced many music-related shows, including the Michael Jackson tribute “Thriller Live,” the Beatles celebration “Let it Be,” and “Rat Pack Live,” has worked for years in the Motown genre with the “Giants of Motown” show, as well as a musical presented in London’s West End that featured label veteran Edwin Starr (“War,” and “25 Miles”), and later, Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson, backed by a young cast.
“What we’ve done with the show is, we’ve taken it back to where the energy was in the ’60s with the dance routines,” said Nicol. He thinks the youth of the performers will remind fans of classic Motown.
“We’ve revitalized that energy that Motown had in its origins. Those who grew up with the Motown sound will appreciate it, it’ll take them back.
“Those who grew up listening to their parents’ music or their grandparents music will get it, because it’s a young cast they can relate to.”
“Dancing in the Streets”
5:30 p.m. Sun.
2211 Woodward, Detroit
Tickets: $33, $43, $53 and $63 at Ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 745-3000.