I challenge you to find anyone who wouldn’t recognise many of the hits that came out of the Motown record label. As the audience demographic demonstrated, this is music that appeals to people of all ages.
It’s 60 years since Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and founded Motown Records, and this stage show traces the ups and downs of the first 25 years, from the early hits by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Marvelettes, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and a young Stevie Wonder, through the signing the Jackson Five, Diana Ross’s solo career launch in the late 1960s, and finishing with both Ross and Gaye leaving Motown to develop their careers elsewhere.
The stage musical was put together by Berry Gordy, drawing songs from a mammoth catalogue of over 15,000 pieces. There have been several ‘Jukebox’ musicals in recent years such as Mamma Mia, where the songs of ABBA have been hung onto a rather dubious story. Motown The Musical feels different to these as the subject matter and the music are so much more closely related, and it feels much better for this.
The atmosphere was electric, from the moment the live band hit the first chords with characteristic guitar playing. The choreography was tight and authentic – nothing over the top, just well researched recreations of the original dance styles these acts did in the 60s and 70s. Also authentic was Karis Anderson’s portrayal of Diana Ross, not blasting all the songs out full voice, but showing a developing voice that changed and matured as time moved on.
You might be thinking that this all sounds like a bit of a party, but there were serious political undercurrents running throughout the show, depicting the struggles that African Americans faced in the middle of the twentieth century. Berry Gordy was a supporter of Martin Luther King and released records of two of his speeches. Act one finished with race riots accompanied by the song What’s going on. But what the show highlights is the changing attitudes to race in the second half of the twentieth century. The themes that underlie this show are as relevant today as they were then.
The set was brought to life with large digital screens, mixing scenery, album covers, and historic video footage, but undoubtedly the star of the show was – for me – Edward Baruwa who played Berry Gordy with an utterly convincing performance full of emotion and drama, crowned with an excellent voice. However, stealing the show a couple of times was the young actor playing a youthful Michael Jackson in the Jackson Five – he was clearly loving his role.
There were moments of humour, and some audience participation which was just on the right side of being cheesy. The show rounded off with the whole auditorium on their feet finding it impossible not to move, clap and in many cases sing along to the music as the cast kept the energy going right to the last beat.
It dawned on me during the performance that we really are lucky to have such world class theatre in our city, so if you want an uplifting evening out, get yourself to the Marlowe Theatre this week.