The music of Tamla Motown needs no introduction. The American record label nurtured the careers of megastars like Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5.
Although now household names, in discovering their talent Motown founder, Berry Gordy played a major role in improving race relations during the Sixties and Seventies by bringing Black artists into the mainstream. As his character says to one DJ during the show: ‘This is music for everyone.’ And so is this show, which at its core is a musical tribute to the sound of a generation.
This rich back-catalogue was ripe for a juke-box musical, and if anyone was going to do it, it feels right it was Gordy, who has both produced the musical and written its book. The show opened in New York in 2013 and after a run in the West End it is now on its first UK tour.
Unlike many juke-box musicals, Motown the Musical doesn’t take the music and shoe-horn it into a story. Here the music is the story, in so far as it is Gordy’s story of how a songwriter from the motor city of the USA, Detroit, borrowed $800 from his family to follow his dream of setting up a record label for Black recording artists, creating a new sound.
It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary the idea must have been at the time. We get a taste of it during scenes where the singers perform to audiences forcibly segregated by police officers and signs denoting one area for whites and another for coloureds. For some radio stations there is even segregation on the airwaves.
These are heavy issues for a musical, but the struggles only give more joy to the uplifting sounds as their uniting force wins through.
Where the story weakens is in its emotional impact. Gordy gives us a breezy look through his life with little sense of jeopardy or conflict. The closest we get to the rifts between himself and the artists who outgrew the label is his reluctance to attend a 25th anniversary celebration.
Gordy’s success came at a cost to his personal life. But even in his intimate relationship with Diana Ross, with whom he had a child, we are given little sense of the emotional tension that must have existed. Brushed aside too is the fact that the pair met when he was a divorced music mogul in his late-30s and Ross a teenage school girl, wide-eyed and hungry for fame.
But again, too much involvement in his personal story could distract from the music which is what everyone has come for. In just under three-hours the musical packs in more than 50 instantly recognisable tracks including: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Reet Petitie, Dancing In The Street, Baby Love, My Girl, and I Heard It through the Grapevine. To create such a super-charged medley of hits is a tremendous feat itself.
Now 60 years on, the music isn’t any less infectious. The audience is itching to join in and director, Charles Randolph-Wright has created plenty of audience interaction along the way, that will have you holding hands and singing along with strangers next to you.
Edward Baruwa brings the house down as Berry Gordy, moving people to spontaneous ovations during solo numbers. Karis Anderson too has a unique spark as Diana Ross, handling the audience interaction with the humour and confidence of a true star. Thirteen-year-old Yami Miraz is also a show-stopper making his professional stage debut as a young Michael Jackson, one of four young actors sharing the role during the tour.
In all, it is a super-slick show, making the most of high-tech projection sets that allow for impressive set changes at filmic speed. The concert scenes have all the vibrancy and impact of a live gig, with the support of a terrific 11-piece band led by Griff Johnson.
It’s a must see for Motown lovers and will no doubt win the label a whole new generation of fans.★ ★ ★ ★
The original Broadway cast recording of “Motown the Musical”is available via Motown Records, a label of UMG Recordings – www.classicmotown.com