An electrifying performance from prolific talent Bert LaBonté anchors Let’s Get It On, a soulful trip down Motown memory lane.
First, a confession: I am not the greatest fan of this type of show. I came along to see Bert LaBonté, and certainly was not disappointed at all in this regard. If catalogs of hit songs are to be used to tell musicians’ own life stories I greatly prefer the theatrical stylings of shows like Jersey Boys and Flowerchildren. Current Broadway hit Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill has a similar overall aim to Let’s Get It On, but gives star Audra McDonald the chance up play Billie Holliday all the way through, presenting the show as a chatty, late-in-life concert. LaBonté channels Gaye in his incredible musical performance, but the excitement and momentum that are generated in each sensational song are quickly frittered away when the perfunctory dialogue brings the mood crashing down. Labonté displays a cheeky and natural delivery in these sections, while co-star Jude Perl still has some way to go in loosening up and coming closer to matching LaBonté’s efforts. The format of the show improves somewhat in act two, where dialogue snippets are briefer, and are often interspersed within songs or spoken with musical underscoring.
Writer John H. Livings has assembled some interesting details of Gaye’s life to share along the way. It is not always easy to keep up with the years and additional characters that are mentioned, but fans who are more familiar with the era will most likely have no difficulty. Director/dramaturge Tom Healey has ensured that sordid details of the lives of Gaye and his various wives/girlfriends are presented in a frank, unsentimental way. Elements of the performers’ personalities enter the performance at various stages; these moments of more relaxed banter may expand as the two stars become more comfortable with the material and with each other.
Another plus in Lady Day is that versatile venue Circle in the Square has been reconfigured as a 1950s supper club, with a good number of patrons seated at chairs and tables. The opportunity for an immersive lead performance and a venue that is conducive to the show result in a mesmerizing night. The Athenaeum is a relatively intimate theatre but still the audience are constrained in their natural response to the infectious music. Still, the finale brought the crowd to their feet to bop along to Gaye’s final smash hit “Sexual Healing,” with an encore finally giving us “Dancing In The Street.”
One final mention of Lady Day. At certain points of its narrative, photos, dresses and musical instruments were illuminated in the rear stage wall. Production values for Let’s Get It On are solid, but the chronicle of Gaye’s life involved some unfamiliar people and places, and the chance to see images of these people would have benefitted the storytelling and the general level of engagement in the dialogue.
Quibbles aside, the standard of music is excellent, and fans of this era who are there to enjoy the hits will not be overly fussed by the show’s structure. The eight-member Funk City Band is a lavish touch, with the excellent musicians, led by musical director John McAll, easily able to recreate a range of musical styles. In a classy touch, and as testament to their significance in the performance, the band members all have biographies and head shots in the program.
LaBonté oozes with cool as the Prince of Motown, making his songs and slick moves appear effortless. Displaying an impressive belt in many of the songs, LaBonté nicely contrasts this with an angelic falsetto. His natural charm and magnetis have the audience in his palm throughout.
Although occasionally singing backup, Perl comes to the fore in a string of duets, taking the place of Gaye’s singing partners such as Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell. Seeming just slightly in awe of her talented co-star, Perl nonetheless relaxes a bit more into the role as the night progresses. Her powerful, soulful voice suits the music well and is a pleasure to hear.
Let Get It On provides a rare chance to hear all-time hits like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “What’s Going On,” performed at a very high standard. Fans of this music are sure to have a blast.
Let’s Get It On – The Life and Music of Marvin Gaye plays at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne until 25 May 2014.
This review published on Theatre People 16 May 2014