REVIEW: MOTOWN (Milton Keynes Theatre) ★★★

Following a 3-year stint in London’s West End, Motown hit the road in October 2018 and embarked on an extensive UK tour, which this week stopped off at Milton Keynes Theatre.

One of the more commercially successful attempts in the ‘jukebox musical’ club in recent years, this song-packed stroll down memory lane tells the story of Berry Gordy, whose passion for music led him to creating the legendary Motown record label, which launched the careers of numerous superstars in the 50s and 60s, including Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson and countless others.

The show is part biography, part tribute-show, with some songs being included to convey what was going on in Gordy’s life at various times, while others are simply showcases for the ensemble to give their best ‘Stars In Their Eyes’ impersonations. The story also takes us through the racial and political difficulties in those decades, from persecution and segregation to wars and presidential assassinations. But mostly, it’s a tuneful tribute to a man who gave the world a hell of a lot of good music.

However, this brings with it two main problems with the show. Firstly, Gordy produced so many songs that the show tries to include as many as possible, to the point of overload. Most musicals have around 15 songs in. This has over 60. Some last just a few seconds, the longest for around 2 minutes, but they’re all in there, and it gives the show a relentless pace, particularly in the first act. It feels like the show is trying to cover everything it possibly can, and in doing so it feels overly frenetic and rushed. The ensemble do well to keep up with it all, but the audience feel as out of breath as the performers at times.

The second main problem is the story itself, in that there isn’t really one. Gordy wanted to launch a record label, and he did. It’s the same problem that I have with Beautiful (the Carole King musical), and On Your Feet (the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan). These people wanted to achieve their dreams, and they did. There’s little drama or struggle or tension to make the audience get invested in. Just because someone has achieved amazing things, it doesn’t necessarily tally that their story is an exciting one to tell.

However, for those looking for a fun night out that’s easy on the brain and full of songs you already know you love, it does the job, and does it well. The set is simple, but helped by a number of screens where projections are used effectively to bring a lot of colour and energy to the stage. The ensemble work hard, often playing multiple roles in quick succession, and choreography is impressively tight. There are a handful of wobbly American accents in the mix, but vocals were strong throughout, particularly Shak Gabbidon-Williams who captured the smooth soul of Marvin Gaye brilliantly.

Playing Gordy himself was Edward Baruwa, who previously understudied the role during the London run. His performance felt a little uneven and forced at times, but he was in great voice, sounding particularly strong in Act 2’s “Can I Close The Door”. Opposite Baruwa as the legendary Ms Diana Ross was Karis Anderson, formerly of girl band Stooshe. Anderson performs well, but neither the voice nor the acting feel particularly reminiscent of Ross. If anything, Anderson’s voice is too strong – Ross is an iconic diva, but her voice is probably the least powerful thing about her. Anderson has a strong belt on her, and doesn’t really ring true as Ross. However, should ‘Dreamgirls’ tour any time soon, she’d make a really strong Deena Jones and could do magic with those big songs (and ironically, the character of Deena is assumed to have been based on Diana Ross).

A warning to the easily frightened though – this show contains….(*cue danger music)….audience participation. It’s not forced, but audience members are invited onstage at one point in the show, to sing with Diana. This happened in the London run and I was hoping it had been removed for the tour, but it’s still there. It stops the flow of the show, it gets awkward, and unless you or your friend/mum/date go up, it’s a long 10 minutes.

Jukebox musicals have their place in the theatre world, and this is pretty decent one. Light on story but strong in song, it’s an enjoyable night out. Personally I prefer my jukebox musicals to have a stronger plot to engage in as well as the recognisable songs (e.g. The Bodyguard, Priscilla….), but as long as you’re smiling and your toes are tapping, it’s still a good time.

Reviewed by Rob Bartley


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