DramaMusicalReviewSouth West

Motown the Musical – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Director: Charles Randolph-Wright

Choreographer: Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Jukebox musicals can have varying reputations – the success of the musical hangs on two principles: how interesting is the cover story, and how good are your tracks?

Motown the Musical brings the story of record executive Berry Gordy to the stage. A legend within the music industry, Gordy helped to launch and foster the careers of artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five and The Supremes. A man who raised a prolific and influential record label from the ground up, Gordy’s life is frankly irresistible. 

With a back catalogue that stretches our concept of familiarity to its limit, the challenge in presenting Motown music is how to make it sound young and fresh. Gordy’s sound, now pop and soul classics, were pioneering tracks when they were first written. The production’s strategy is to use performers who approach Motown not with reverence, but with absolute, unapologetic glee. Karis Anderson as Diana Ross (Anderson is also a girl-band alumnus) clearly relishes the opportunity to play a legend, but still gives us enough of Ross’ insecurity. Stardom on this level may seem pre-ordained, but the ‘No-Hit Supremes’ were a running joke at the label until they struck gold with Where Did our Love Go in 1964.

Motown the Musical is not shy of great male voices, either. Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye nails the transition of the artist from Perry Como-wannabe to a man thoroughly embedded in the politics of his time. It is Gaye’s tragedy that he found his truest voice just before his death in 1984.

The role of Berry Gordy is so central to the telling of the Motown story, that casting is not only vital but pivotal. In this production, Edward Baruwa as the label’s CEO gives us the heart and soul of Motown. Baruwa’s voice – richly melodic – marries the frustration and joy Gordy must have felt in nurturing artists. Playing with the audience, Baruwa’s performance is packed with charisma and likeability.

The musical decides to stay true to the label’s roots, by leaning heavily on the Ross narrative. Gordy’s love affair with Ross diverted much-needed attention from the label at large. A brief appearance from The Jackson Five shows Motown struggling to leave its Sixties heyday behind, and move into the Seventies. Correctly identifying that a child star should sing songs that a child would sing, Gordy sets into motion the Jackson Five mould, and by extension, the template for Michael’s solo success.

If the point of the piece is to mark Gordy’s achievement, Motown the Musical achieves this right from the start. The emphasis on finding material to suit the artist was revolutionary. The question with Motown itself is whether it moved fast enough, as it started launching more contemporary material. But the musical never digs too deep here – this is a celebration of legacy, and by the time we fast-forward to the 25th anniversary of Motown Records, the details are lost as the music takes over. But when the music’s this good, you don’t mind a bit of glossing.

With the influence of crossover sound continuing to make its presence felt, Motown has lost none of its power. The songs are filled with delight and charm, and it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard them; the effect is just the same – Motown really is the sound of happiness.

Runs until Saturday 17 August | Image: Tristram Kenton

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. 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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