Writer: Berry Gordy
Composers: The Motown Catalogue
Director: Charles Randolph-Wright
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The blurb for Motown the Musical promises ‘The Songs, The Sound, The Story’ and, for once, we have a show that comes close to fulfilling the advance publicity.
In 1984, a concert is organised to celebrate the 25thanniversary of Motown Records. Artists such as Diana Ross (Karis Anderson) and Marvin Gaye (Shak Gabbidon-Williams) who had left the company perform with stalwarts like Smokey Robinson (Nathan Lewis). However, Berry Gordy (Edward Baruwa) who started the company with an $800 loan refuses to attend the concert feeling bitter at the ingratitude of the artists whose careers he promoted yet who refused to stay loyal.
Motown the Musical is in the tradition of jukebox musicals that serve as tributes to the artists who performed the original songs. While Nathan Lewis captures Smokey Robinson’s falsetto, the cast do not limit themselves to just interpreting the songs. Karis Anderson suggests the ambition and ego of diva Diana Ross and Shak Gabbidon-Williams hints at the troubled mind behind Marvin Gaye’s restless inconsistent nature.
The show is, however, just as much a tribute to Motown founder Berry Gordy, which is hardly surprising as he wrote the script. Perhaps inevitably the script does not dig too deeply into the flaws that eventually fractured Motown limiting criticism to acknowledging how Berry’s obsession with Diana Ross, personally as well as professionally, distracted him from other artists. Berry is a workaholic who defines himself by his achievements; during his courtship with Ross, he seems uncertain how to behave romantically and more comfortable promoting her career. Yet the most flattering aspect of the show is not the script but Edward Baruwa’s dignified performance. Baruwa is an excellent singer and his boisterous, paternal and hugely appealing Berry demonstrates the vision and passion that nurtured Motown.
With 50 Motown songs featured in the show director Charles Randolph-Wright faces the challenge of how to squeeze them in without relying on medleys. The approach taken is an audacious mixture of styles. Randolph-Wright faithfully duplicates some of the more famous Motown routines with Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams replicating the precise choreography made famous by groups like The Temptations. In other instances, the songs serve as a substitute for dialogue, define character or progress the story as they usually are in musicals. Berry’s plea for funding leads inevitably into Money (That’s What I Want). The versions of the songs are respectful they but they are not carbon copies being adapted to suit the storyline – an extended instrumental break makes Dancing in the Street a major dance number with the audience dancing in the aisles. There is even a hint of pantomime with Baruwa shamelessly egging on the audience as he struggles to think of a name for his record company.
It sounds like a dog’s dinner but the exuberance generated by Randolph-Wright makes it impossible to do anything other than to go with the flow and surrender to the joyful infectious atmosphere. David Korins’ scenic designs, based on projected images rather than physical sets, enable instant scene changes, which captures the breathless excitement of an era when positive social change was actually possible. The bright and blazing images are larger than life cheerfully serving as a reminder that times were not always as grim as the present.
Like the music and record company to which it pays tribute Motown the Musical combines professional excellence with sheer enthusiasm to create a show to which audiences will want to return again and again.
Runs until 23 March 2019| Image: Tristram Kenton