CEDRIC NEAL is currently making his West End debut as Motown founder Berry Gordy in Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
His theatre credits include: Rhythm of Life – A Cy Coleman Revue (St James Theatre), The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre/Broadway) and After Midnight (Broadway).
As a company member at Dallas Theater Center, Cedric has also appeared as Tommy in The Who’s Tommy, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Happy Loman in Death of a Salesman and Billy Lyons in Stagger Lee.
Here, the actor and singer is in conversation with Derek Smith.
Recently back from chilling in Cornwall on a break from performing as the legendary music mogul Berry Gordy in Motown the Musical, you sense that Cedric Neal is probably itching to slip off the sandals and get right back into the shoes of Motown Records’ founder.
Why wouldn’t he be? It’s got to be one of the most interesting roles on the West End stage right now, but ironically, when the casting call went out for the London show in the USA last year, it wasn’t even on Neal’s creative radar.
He was thinking more along the lines of playing Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye. No less than six callbacks later, the last two under the creative scrutiny of Mr Gordy himself, and he was all set to perform the pivotal role at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
“I was actually told before the last callback that I had the part, but couldn’t say anything,” he confesses, while he then pretty much got given a blank canvas for the role – within reason.
“To be honest, I don’t envy some of the cast members playing some of the other iconic stars in the show like Diana Ross (Lucy St Louis), and Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown) – these are artists that have always been in the public eye and so much more is known about them. They are the superstars that have been in the spotlight all their lives, Gordy is really the one unknown superstar in the musical,” he explains.
He describes the experience of working closely with Gordy during the London show’s rehearsal period as both “comforting and intimidating”, while the notes kept coming thick and fast.
“What I remember from that time is just receiving notes, notes and more notes – even on the very day of the opening show,” says Neal.
You can imagine that Gordy is not a man to suffer fools gladly. Thankfully, Neal is clearly no fool.
Originally from Texas and a UK resident since October 2014, his theatre credits include After Midnight (Broadway), The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (Broadway and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre) and Rhythm of Life – A Cy Coleman Revue (St James Theatre). He studied classical vocal performance at Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY), and Booker T Washington HSPVA (Dallas, Texas).
“Before having the break in Cornwall, the only time I’ve taken off has been to sort out some sciatica nerve damage, sustained while performing Porgy and Bess in New York. My doctor said the good news was that this is the worst it would get, the bad news is that it would probably mean I have a few problems for life.”
The ticket buying public and press alike have given the show the collective thumbs up, and it is now booking until October 2017. Asked if looking forward to that long a run is at all daunting, Neal’s reaction is professional and philosophic. “I’m definitely in it for the long run, and as long as it’s a commercial success, I want to be involved.” Some 98% of all productions to date have sold out, so the commercial forecast is looking good.
Opening the recent West End Live event, performing a set, which included a Supremes medley, held no fears for Neal. After all, he has sang al fresco before, at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and having lived in the UK for a good while now, is clearly prepared for the unpredictable climate and the challenges that the great outdoors presents for artists and audience alike.
Going back to the press night in March for the much-talked about and eagerly anticipated London show, the media’s mass presence didn’t really worry him. “The only time I got nervous was during the curtain call,” he says. “Looking out into the audience and waiting to see their reaction was nerve-racking. And, of course, Berry Gordy was there, as were a number of original Motown Records staff,” he recalls. “It’s actually the first time in my career that I have made a point of not reading the reviews of a show I’ve performed in. And, so far, I still haven’t,” he says.
If he did, you imagine he would be rather pleased – with his acclaimed performance as Gordy, the production as a whole, and the ‘tribute’ that it pays to one man’s vision and his stable of superb musicians and writers who created something absolutely unique in the unmistakable sound of Motown.
* Motown the Musical has extended booking until October 2017.
Tickets for Motown the Musical are available HERE.
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Motown the Musical – Shaftesbury Theatre – Review