Book: Berry Gordy
Director: Charles Randolph-Wright
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
It’s March 25, 1983, and rehearsals are in full swing in Pasadena for a gala performance to celebrate 25 years of Motown. Artists nurtured by Motown are attending to celebrate the iconic label, led by Berry Gordy Jr. But where is Gordy? He seems to be sulking: many of these artists had earlier left Motown and he feels betrayed. One by one his closest colleagues and friends try to convince him to attend. As they do so, he reminisces about the history of Motown.
And so we’re taken on a whistlestop tour of Motown highlights, including performances of no fewer than 63 songs from its back catalogue, as we see the story of that first 25 years through Gordy’s eyes. We see the young Gordy inspired by Joe Louis as he takes the boxing world championship from Max Schmeling (Hey Joe, (Black Like Me)) which leads to his writing songs and ultimately setting up Motown. Over the years, Motown will sign and guide many artists but we see glimpses of a paternalistic approach from Gordy so that when artists are wooed with offers of more money and artistic freedom, they happily leave Gordy and Motown behind, even, eventually, Diana Ross, with whom Gordy had a five-year relationship.
Motown’s rise took place in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great civil unrest in America when segregation by colour was commonplace and we see some evidence of that and its impact on Motown’s stable.
But what is central to Motown: The Musical is the music. There’s an energy and vibrancy among the young cast as they perform truncated versions of Motown classics. We see most songs being performed in concert with intricate moves choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, and the audience is soon singing and clapping along. A few songs are placed to move the narrative, but they don’t work quite as well as the parade of glitzy showstoppers. David Korins’ set comprises moving panels on which are projected locations and occasionally period video and which allows the breakneck pace to be maintained.
But Motown The Musical’s Achilles’ heel is the book by Gordy, based on his 1994 book, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. If the music is light on its feet, the book is distinctly flat-footed. There’s precious little time left over for exposition, so the book is clunky with characters announcing themselves before talking or reminding us exactly where action is taking place, and plot points are glossed over. The cast and director Charles Randolph-Wright do the best they can with this material, but inevitably most characters are two-dimensional and occasionally cartoonish so that it is hard to engage emotionally with them, despite the obstacles that they need to overcome in 1960s America. But ultimately, it is the music that is the star and that shines out.
Central to the whole are the relationships between Gordy, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson, played by Edward Baruwa, Karis Anderson and Nathan Lewis respectively. Each has a fine singing voice, and Anderson and Lewis emulate the styles of Ross and Robinson well. Baruwa displays Gordy’s determination for perfection well, as well as his hurt when he is, as he feels, betrayed by his stars, one by one. Anderson oozes glamour as Ross. Lewis is perhaps a little whiny as Robinson at times but nevertheless turns in fine vocal performances.
Motown The Musical provides a dazzling evening of vocal pyrotechnics and nostalgia so that one can, perhaps, forgive the book’s shortcomings. Certainly, the press night audience was cheering, swaying, clapping and singing along as hit after hit is delivered and it’s hard not to be carried along on such a wave of euphoria and have your spirits lifted.
Runs Until 3 November 2018 and on tour | Image: Tristram Kenton