Latest Review – Motown The Musical [Opera House, Manchester]

Photo by Tristram Kenton


Opera House, Manchester

Until Saturday 23rd March 2019

Anyone familiar with Motown founder Berry Gordy’s rags to riches tales will appreciate it is a fascinating one, yet despite having been adapted by Gordy himself from his own 1994 autobiography, Motown the Musical sadly tends to play things just too safe, employing a formulaic, by the numbers approach that simply gives us an overview of the big themes without ever delving deep enough into the key issues. The reason? There simply isn’t room!

Making full use of the jukebox musical format, Motown the Musical crams in a colossal 63 numbers, albeit in abridged versions, leaving little room for any real narrative depth. Many of the numbers are of course used to drive the story and highlight contemporary events (Vietnam, etc), though for the most part they are simply used to showcase the work of the many great Motown artists and writers, the exceptional vocal abilities of its cast, and the timeless quality of The Legendary Motown Catalogue.

Motown opens in 1983 in the hours leading up to Motown Records’ 25th anniversary reunion concert, introducing us to an aggrieved Berry Gordy as he reminisces about the hardships he’s overcome, and the various star names that left the Motown label in search of more money and creative freedom. The show then flashes back in time as we see a young man struggling to establish a new label, fight prejudice and change the face of American music, all on a budget of just $800.

The show principally concerns itself with Gordy’s journey, his relationship with Diana Ross, and Ross’ own breakaway from the Supremes, though along the way it does explore Gordy’s differing relationships with a host of key Motown artists and writers such as Smokey Robinson; Marvin Gaye; The Temptations; The Four Tops; Holland, Dozier, Holland; Mary Wells; Stevie Wonder; Martha and the Vandellas; and The Jackson 5.

Edward Baruwa has a host of impressive West End musical credits to his name, though he has perhaps never looked or sounded as comfortable in a role as he does here as Berry Gordy. It is a role that not only allows him to properly stretch his acting chops but gives him the chance to showcase his soaring soul/blues voice to full effect, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint. There are excellent performances too from Karis Anderson as Diana Ross, Nathan Lewis as Smokey Robinson, and Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye, as well as a very strong and dynamic supporting ensemble.

Charles Randolph-Wright’s polished, high energy production has a real fluidity to it and is given an added dimension thanks to some excellent design work. David Korin’s simple yet hugely effective set features a series of bold (often psychedelic) sliding panels which glide smoothly during scene transitions and combine well with Daniel Brodie’s dazzling back projections, Natasha Katz’ lighting design, and Emilio Sosa’s costumes. Patricia Cox and Warren Adams deserve special mention too for their slick choreography, as do a scintillating live band under the direction of Griff Johnson.

Motown the Musical may shy away from the hard, gritty depth of the Motown story – and it would undoubtedly have been much more incisive had the production team drafted in an objective outside writer – but as it stands it is an unashamed, hit-packed crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to win over the Motown fans and have the audience on their feet.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30-minutes (approx.), including one 20-minute interval.

Final Performance at the Opera House, Manchester: Saturday 23rd March 2019

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.

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