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Motown: The Musical does not have the most coherent or in-depth script as it tells about the rise and then demise of the iconic pop label, but it does take you through the story of how Berry Gordy founded the company with an $800 loan, how he found legendary talent – performers and creators of the songs – and it touches clearly on many of the highlights of the tale. It is set as a kind of flashback from the night when all the stars gathered for a 25th anniversary show and also makes reference to the salient events of the history of the period – from Joe Louis defeating Max Schmeling as a moment when democracy was perceived to win over dictatorship and Berry Gordy was fired with ambition to make his mark for himself and for his people; through the Civil Rights movement, the JFK and Martin Luther King and RFK assassinations, the crisis of the Vietnam War, and so on. Though they are lightly touched upon, they add a kind of political knowingness to the tale that deals with the rise and acceptance of stars like Diana Ross, Marvin Gay, The Jackson Five and many more in a country still dominated by prejudice. When Marvin Gaye wants to write songs of protest, we understand why.

But ultimately, the hits are what make this show and what make this a special experience in the theatre. I reckon at least 50 songs are portrayed either wholly or in part, and they are performed brilliantly by an energetic cast that conveys great joy and gusto every single time. It is like a non-stop playlist as it moves swiftly from one song to the next, all performed with superb professionalism, all immensely enjoyable to hear, and embedded in choreography that evokes the era brilliantly.

The impersonations are fairly evocative; but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that virtually every song is a central part of modern popular culture and the audience sinks back into them with great pleasure and confidence. The audience also responds well to chances to sing along or clap along, and the evening is, quite simply, fun.

The night that I attended this tour the part of Berry Gordy was well taken by the one of the understudies, Cordell Mosteller. He was well-matched by Karis Anderson as Diana Ross. Both managed to show convincingly how their characters grew and developed over the years, he into a successful entrepreneur and promoter, she from a shy young girl into a seriously self-confident and somewhat demanding super star. I thought that Shak Gabbidon-Williams was especially good as Marvin Gaye and that Nathan Lewis was an appealing Smokey Robinson. The impersonation of the Jackson Five was another highlight.

If you like the Motown music and sound, you will enjoy every minute of this show. Griff Johnson leads a fluent, strong band. The Choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams is vividly reminiscent of those moves we recall from clips that show the original stars performing in the 1950s and 1960s. The Scenic Design by David Korins and the Costumes by Emilio Sosa add the right atmosphere and the projections designed by Daniel Brodie nearly steal the show at times. All in all this is an evening of charming and energetic performances, captivating music, and a rich feast for the eyes. The depth comes not from the script but from the music and dancing; and also from the sense of an era lovingly revisited.

  • Musical
  • Book by Berry Gordy
  • Music and Lyrics from the Motown Catalogue
  • Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
  • Cast includes: Cordell Mosteller, Karis Anderson, Nathan Lewis, Shak Gabbidon-Williams, Daniel Haswell
  • New Theatre
  • Until 4 January 2020

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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