I can’t imagine growing up without hearing Motown. It’s such a huge part of our musical history. Imagine no Diana Ross, no Stevie Wonder, no Smokey Robinson, no Marvin Gaye, and no Jacksons?! You just can’t! Motown the Musical tells the story of this magical sound and at its heart; its founder Berry Gordy. Gordy borrowed some money to start the label in 1959. He was inspired by a black boxer but knew he would never make it as a boxer and wanted to be truly great at what he does. He can rest assured he achieved that goal although starting that record label wasn’t easy.
This show is the story of Motown and opens at the 25 year anniversary with The Temptations and The Four Tops battling it out, and what a fabulous opening scene this is. Then we are taken back in time to way before the label started. How did Berry Gordy come up with Motown? Well, they are from Detroit and it’s known as the motor city so therefore…shorten it to Mo-town. I’ve no idea if this is accurate but I liked that idea.
Of course how you pick songs is always difficult with a back catalogue of Motown but there are some that cannot be left out. The show is full of songs you know instantly, hits such as Baby Love, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, My Girl, War, and Stop - In the Name of Love, Please Mr Postman, Reach Out (I’ll be there), Hey Joe, I Want You Back, You’re All I Need To Get By, ABC, Dancing In The Street, Happy Birthday, I Can’t Get Next To You, I Heard it Through The Grapevine, My Girl, My Guy and Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours. I bet you started singing some of them in your head just now didn’t you? That’s the magic of Motown!
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, the production features a live orchestra and performances from artists that, according to Randolph-Wright, ‘evoke a certain thing. What I never wanted to do was find people who would just impersonate those performers' says Charles. 'I wanted them to make me feel the way Diana Ross made me feel, an actress that would actually make me put my hands up and sing ‘Reach Out and Touch’. It’s an instinctive thing. And 60 years on, audiences still love this music. The show is infectious, and the UK truly knows and loves this music. It’s in the UK DNA. It’s not just a record label, it’s not just a show, it’s a movement.' Perfectly put Charles!
Berry Gordy is played by Edward Baruwa and what a talent he is. I’ve no idea if the real Berry could sing but let me tell you Edward nails every song. His best friend was Smokey Robinson and is played by Nathan Lewis. I loved how Nathan played Smokey in a gentle way and really enjoyed his performance. Karis Anderson plays the legendary Diana Ross and what a delight she is. From early Diana in the Supremes to going solo she blew us all away with her gift. I especially loved her ‘Vegas’ performance and she pulls a member of the audience out to sing with her. The guy who volunteered didn’t know the words to the song. But just as Diana would do, Karis was cool and calm and handled it so professionally. What a star! Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye was simply sublime. Shak gave such a moving performance of someone fighting to be themselves. Someone who wants his songs to reflect the black rebellion of the 70’s. I absolutely loved his performance.
The second half felt a bit jumbled with the timeline jumping to the 80’s before going back to the 70’s. And Teena Marie doing Square Biz – well I have never heard of it – and the reason for that is it never charted in the UK. It felt like scraping the barrel when there are so many stunning songs that could have been in there instead. Some of the song arrangements were also a bit ‘jazzed up’ for the Motown sound and I know I am nit picking here but Please Mr Postman deserves at least one verse rather than keep repeating the chorus. It’s a ridiculously hard job to pick the songs as there are so many fabulous ones but the show did feel very Diana Ross centric. Obviously this is because Berry and Diana had a relationship and this is his story being told. Overall, this show is a stunner and one that you would want to see again and again. It’s moral was be the best you that you can be and a strong message of be black and be proud. Those are still relevant today.
Motown the Musical comes to Milton Keynes Theatre from Tuesday, 23 July to Saturday, 3 August. You heard it through the grapevine here first...