Motown: The Musical – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Book: Berry Gordy

Director: Charles Randolph-Wright

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

More than music, Motown was an opportunity. It was family, dedication and an outlet for some of history’s greatest African American performers. The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross all had a part to play in the construction of the record label. Playing such a prominent role in racial integration of the American music scene its richly diverse history is fitting of a staged narrative.

Motown is the attempted journey these legends of music had with the label, but more importantly their relationship with Berry Gold – founder of Motown. From inception to the anniversary and eventual sale, there is an intense history to cover. A jukebox musical covering a vast array of the classics, Motown channels it stars desire to strike out but bites off more than it can chew.

Go big or go home, one of the key rules of showbiz. A lesson which the producers of Motown should learn to swallow. At the core of this production, it isn’t sure if it wants to be an all-out musical bombardment akin to the likes of Thriller or a narrative jukebox such as Buddy Holly. Instead, it tries to stay in the murky grey area, succeeding in neither as it attempts to please all. As a jukebox musical, the narrative is a mess. As an all-out musical its song cuts are frantic, rarely do they have time to make an impact.

The easiest way to demonstrate how much of an issue this is through the track listing. Over fifty songs are performed in Motown – some in full, other snippets. At most, I could perhaps remember six tracks. In such a determined push to cover a colossal in the recording industry, sacrifices needed to be made. Set a soundtrack of key songs, push them to the utmost in the presentation. With a score provided by the Motown band, led by Griff Johnson, the performers are in safe hands for the instrumentals – it all just needed focus.

Not entirely saved by vocals, there are some flat notes in Motown, though for every shaky performance there’s another which soars. Namely Kris Anderson and Edward Baruwa as Diana Ross and Berry Gordy. Individually the pair has excelling vocals, range and controls. Their limited duets merge well but they lack chemistry as Ross and Gordy. Here we see the flaw with the desire for storytelling, we aren’t given enough time with Gordy and other individuals to actually want to see them interact. Champions of music pass and go in the blink of an eye, never to appear again. Baruwa’s Gordy is compelling, determined but we never feel any. The inevitable threat of the labels selling has little baring as we’ve not spent enough time in its growth outside of the music it produced.

Though their interactions are far from seamless, the scenic design certainly is. Conveying movement, screens, beams and a large monogrammed ‘M’ divide, glide and connect onstage. Visual displays used to move location, time or introduce acts. David Korin’s design blending with Daniel Brodie’s projection makes for a visually intriguing production.

Tribute to such a monumental part of the push towards racial integration is paid but to no great detail. What’s frustrating is that Motown should be incredible, it should be a real crowd-pleaser. It knows the songs we want to hear, the stories to share, the cast to deliver this and frame them well. It tries though, to smash these all together, and in its endeavours to please, it ultimately disappoints.

Runs until December 8 2018 | Image: Tristram Kenton

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The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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