More than 60 truncated hits feature in ‘Motown the Musical’, the show written by Motown records founder Berry Gordy, which debuted on Broadway before arriving in London’s West End in 2016. I’m a big fan of the kind of straight forward fun offered by a jukebox musical, and a lover of Motown – so I was thrilled to hear that the sounds of Detroit were coming to Bristol.
The story of Motown is the story of Gordy, who wanted to start his own record label and who refused to be confined to the ‘colored’ radio stations. He set Motown up in 1959, and the label brought us hits from The Temptations, Martha Reeves, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson among many others. The show takes us through key years in the label’s development, as a backdrop of racial segregation (which Motown as a movement played a part in breaking down among American youth) gives way to the civil rights movement, Kennedy’s death and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
At the same time, the show charts Gordy’s relationship with the most supreme of The Supremes, miss Diana Ross, the politicisation of Marvin Gaye and a host of his acts either leaving for better record deals or trying to sue him. Before you get a chance to absorb any of it, we’re onto the next hit. As a result, Motown can feel a little less classy than other shows in the jukebox genre that treat the storytelling more sophisticatedly (Million Dollar Quartet and Backbeat spring to mind).
That said, you can’t argue with the songs of Motown. Edward Baruwa is triumphant as Gordy, and Brit school trained Karis Anderson is an exemplary Diana Ross. Other sections, however well executed, remind you just what unique vocal talents we had in artists like Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson – which is no bad thing. Gordy’s script might be clunking in places, but you’re guaranteed to dance and sing your way out, and rediscover the music all over again.
Reviewed by Michelle Smith
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