motown cast

Motown - The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre


There is no doubt that the name of Motown is one that is synonymous with and an influential force within the global success and acceptance of black music.

You can imagine then that the story of the creation of this record label, formed by songwriter Berry Gordy in 1959 in Detroit, would be packed with drama, tragedy and intrigue.

Read the individual accounts of some of the artists who were involved and those signed to it, and you will know that to be true. But in this well produced, glossy makeover we are presented with only the barest chronological glimpses of the actual Motown story.

Perhaps the reason for this is that this production, directed by Charles Randolph Wright, has been written and co-produced by Berry Gordy himself. It is his personal view but no doubt he would have found it hard to distance himself from the complex aspects that contributed to the building of this global Music brand.

Berry Gordy once said that the main ingredients of the Motown sound came from the dirt and the struggle of the impoverished beginnings of its artists and added to that the ingredient of pure soul.

Unfortunately those are exactly the elements which are missing from this lavish, high tech stage show. In an effort to shoehorn in 50 of the labels most memorable hits, there seems little time to really develop any compassion. The dramatic links of relationships and serious cultural issues such as the deaths of Martin Luther King and that of Kennedy seem like mere touchpoints to segue into the next batch of famous melodies.

berry and Diana

Karis Anderson  as Diana Ross and Edward Baruwa as Berry Gordy. Pictures: Tristram Kenton

The main focus of this production weighs heavily on Gordy’s own relationship with Diana Ross and the Supremes, the act which for many years was at the top of the Motown tree. Again though, the demise of the original Supreme member Flo Ballard and her issues are passed off as her `not being well’. As it is Gordy himself retelling his own story there seems to be and unwillingness to relate more honestly to the issues within the story.

Putting all of that aside, what we have left is a glorious jukebox of the best of the Motown songs. What also is remarkable is the unique blend of management and creative talent at Motown all of which seem to have been joyously shared and nurtured in a family of musician’s, writers and performers.

Stepping into the shoes of the likes of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye is certainly a challenge for any vocalist and whilst Karis Anderson, who played Diana Ross, clearly has the vocal ability to match her range, others sometimes struggled in vocally presenting the work with quite the same level of drive and passion. Even so this very young cast work incredibly hard to transition and cover the extensive Motown roster as best as they can.

Edward Baruwa plays the part of Berry Gordy and clearly has an outstanding soul voice and although Gordy himself was not a featured Motown artist, it was down to Baruwa in the role to produce some of the best vocal performances of several classic Motown songs.

Disappointingly the importance of Marvin Gaye and his breakthrough album What’s going On seemed to be minimalised as it was clearly a departure from the Motown sound and at odds to Gordy’s own views as to what would be successful.

While no one has a better reason for plundering the Motown archive than Berry Gordy himself, you can only imagine that someone else afforded the scope to reflect more deeply on the truth, would have created a far more worthy production.

All in all this production is an entertaining representation of the company’s history but there seems there is more to be told.

It’s clear that the legacy of Motown is everlasting and is still an influence on artists today. What’s more evident is its remarkable achievement and musical success, in that it is unlikely that such a unique collaboration of management, musical and vocal talent, writers and musicians will ever be formed again. You can shop around but 50 classic hits in one night is great value by anyone’s standards and totally worth the investment. To 03-11-18

Jeff Grant


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