Review Motown The Musical
Posted by News Editor
Posted in News
Motown The Musical, Mayflower
Reviewed by Helena Gomm
Images: Tristram Kenton
Motown The Musical begins, and almost ends, with Motown Records founder Berry Gordy (a stunning performance by Edward Baruwa) exhibiting considerable reticence over attending the 25th anniversary party for Motown, which has been organised by the musicians he has worked with over the years.
On the brink of having to sell the company, celebration must be the furthest thing from his thoughts. What finally makes him change his mind and go to the party is unclear. He says it’s because they love him. If so, they have a funny way of showing it.
Gordy has been comprehensively shafted by the music industry itself and by many of the singers and bands who owe their careers to him but have now left Motown for better money elsewhere.
Given that it took mere money, rather than high mountains, low valleys and wide rivers, to keep them from him, serenading Gordy with Diana Ross’s hit ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ seems wildly ironic.
Yet footage of the actual event screened in the background during the final numbers shows that this anniversary party really did take place, and Gordy looks pretty happy at it. This filmed section also reveals how much the actors resemble the musicians they are portraying – all credit to the casting directors and backstage crew.
Written by Berry Gordy, based on the book by Berry Gordy and co-produced by Berry Gordy, it is clear that what we are seeing in this show is a very subjective view of what went on at Motown Records, presented entirely from Gordy’s perspective. He comes across as very much a father figure, cherishing and nurturing his musicians like children, even when they turn out to be ungrateful.
Although there is little time for character development in this whirlwind of a show, some of the musicians don’t come out of it very well, particularly Diana Ross, Gordy’s former love interest, who abandons Motown when offered more money by RCA. A few scores being settled here, perhaps?
Ross is played by Karis Anderson in a mesmerising performance, marred only by a silly interlude in which she lures two members of the audience up on stage to sing with her.
However, despite the fact that this show is a bit like watching a man delivering the eulogy at his own funeral, it would be ungracious to rain on Gordy’s parade. His achievements are notable and wide-ranging, as witnessed by the number of accolades and awards he has received (listed in the back of the programme), and one should never underestimate his role, and that of music itself, in breaking down racial barriers in what was still a deeply segregated society.
Radio stations which saw themselves as solidly ‘white’ were unwilling to play ‘black’ music. But that was what young people of all backgrounds wanted, and ultimately the station bosses could not deny the demands of a new – and much less right-wing – generation.
Yet racism works both ways. We see some of Gordy’s stars openly rebelling against the number of white people he employs in his sales and marketing department, people who are working hard to sell their records for them.
Throw into the mix that this is an almost entirely black cast playing to an almost entirely (and much longer in the tooth) white audience, and it’s all a bit of a bizarre melting pot.
With great singing, amazing dancing and skilled and slick choreography, the show moves smoothly and briskly through the events of 25 years of Motown. However, that very briskness is a problem. The show is extremely episodic, with few of the episodes lasting more than a couple of lines. ‘Dr King has been shot!’ ‘Dr King is dead?’ On to the next song. And many of the songs are not delivered in their entirety, which is a pity.
This break-neck dash through the history of Gordy and his company is made possible by an ingenious and very impressive set comprising sliding panels and projected images, which both set the scene for the action on stage and give a glimpse, through newsreel footage, of life in the wider world.
Important events – the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam war, the Nixon affair – all take place as a backdrop to the happenings at Motown, though references to them in the somewhat clunky script are largely fleeting and come across as politically rather naive.
Nevertheless, this is a show to be enjoyed and a celebration of the music of a particular and important era. The great Motown juggernaut moves on and will be warmly received by its many faithful fans, who – judging by the audience reaction – are clearly still out there.