Motown the Musical – Milton Keynes Theatre

Book: Berry Gordy 

Director: Charles Randolph-Wright

Reviewer: Maggie Constable

You may have heard it through the grapevine; yes Motown The Musical hits Milton Keynes this week. With so many well-known songs,  in fact over 50 classics, who will be able to resist singing and toe-tapping along? Songs like Stop In The Name of Love, My Guy, and I Heard It Through The Grapevine.

This is the story of the irrepressible Berry Gordy, based on his own book To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown, which describes how he set up Motown Records with only a shoestring budget. His was the dream to bring the world that special something and much more than any other record labels had previously done. That he certainly did. We learn of his battles, his personal connections, particularly with Diana Ross, and most importantly the music which made Motown music legendary and the backdrop to an era. As well as founding the company Gordy became responsible for starting up the careers of singers such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson, to name but a few. In so doing, Gordy ensured that his Motown Records churned out hit after hit but without losing sight of the family feel of the company as compared to the big-budget labels to whom he would eventually succumb. It wasn’t always easy, especially when his stars let him down, but the endurance of these songs and the stars is testimony to the man.

His legacy is not only the music but what Motown Records did for race relations, a company which worked principally with black performers. We see police and segregation at some of the first shows, radio stations refusing to play what was called “coloured music” and even guns being fired at some performances. The thread of race issues runs through the musical.

Berry Gordy is played by Edward Baruwa, who holds the stage. Not only does the show centre around him because it is Gordy’s story but also due to Baruwa’s incredible stage presence and powerhouse voice.  He gives us some wonderful solos. It is sometimes hard to believe that this is not actually Gordy in front of us we are so drawn in by him.

Karis Anderson as Diana Ross shows us very credibly the journey that Ross made from young and ambitious school student to international superstar, with immense support from the obsessive Gordy. Her journey echoes that of Motown’s. Indeed, Anderson’s performance and her vocals develop similarly until she really comes into her own in the second part of the show. The relationship between Ross and Gordy is convincing and their duet on You’re All I Need To Get By is really beautiful.

Nathan Lewis brings us a very likeable and quietly believable Smokey Robinson, Gordy’s loyal friend who sticks with him to the bitter end despite the way he is often treated by the controlling Gordy, but who learns finally to stand up for himself. Shak Gabbidon-Williams shows us Marvin Gaye who wants to succeed as a singer but is desperate to use his songs to make people think. A very creditable performance and such melodic tones on I Heard It Through The Grapevine.

Set design by David Korin is simple but oh so effective with projections from Daniel Brodie showing us film clips and pictures from the time as well as the story settings. We even have a bit of colourful psychedelia to enhance some numbers. Choreography from Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams works well and is particularly powerful in the Edwin Starr War number.

At the end of the show, we are on our feet singing along and dancing albeit not quite in the street. A fab, fun evening’s entertainment.

Runs Until 3 August 2019 and on tour  | Image: Tristram Kenton

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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