Dancing in your seat is unavoidable when watching Motown the Musical so prepare to be up on your feet bopping along by the end!
The performers in this exuberant jukebox musical are currently showcasing fancy footwork and versatile vocals in a two-week run at Milton Keynes Theatre. Their efforts result in an entertaining show that delivers a heartfelt tribute to Motown and everything that the revolutionary record label represented.
Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy Jr founded the Motown Records label — named after the car manufacturing city’s ‘Motor Town’ moniker — with just $800 in 1959. The former car factory worker was keen to be the best version of himself that he could be, while helping others to do the same. Accordingly, he resolved to invest in atypical musical arrangements sung by black artists and promote them to mainstream (white) audiences.
This ground-breaking gamble launched the careers of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and countless other legendary performers.
As the defining sound of the 1960s and 1970s, Motown moved the world with hit after glorious hit. Considering this impressive inventory of timeless tunes, Motown the Musical could have easily been a sweet soul sleepover. However, the two-act show powers through a hit parade of songs with purpose and pizzazz so there is no need for audience or cast members to pull an all-nighter.
You might like to know which songs are sung in Motown the Musical. Well, you’d probably struggle to think of a Motown melody that isn’t sung! The show packs in abbreviated renditions of 50-odd Motown releases. From doo-wop ditty Mr Postman (the first ever Motown single to reach Number 1 in the Billboard 200 pop chart) to rhythm and blues favourite Do You Love Me (featured on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack), the score is packed full of high-octane classics. These are played live by an outstanding orchestra and slickly sequenced to capture the personal relationships and professional struggles of the man behind Motown.
Berry Gordy (or ‘B.G’) had an incredible ear for what music would sell, as well as the vision needed to market the artists he signed. However, his creative hothouse of producers, songwriters and singers eventually fell on hard times when some of Motown’s greatest stars, including Diana Ross, accepted outlandishly tempting offers (of money and artistic freedom) from other record companies.
Motown the Musical is based on Gordy’s autobiography: To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. Hence, the production centres around his experience of the events he lived through while building Motown Records up. The narrative flows well, and the show in its entirety is compelling and well-paced, but its perspective means that we only really get to know Gordy as a three-dimensional character. The iconic Motown artists, on the other hand, wow us with their songs but remain something of an enigma — this is Gordy’s story.
Edward Baruwa is a force to be reckoned with as Berry Gordy. He presides over everything that happens onstage, sings his heart out and develops a rapport with the audience (against the odds at times – audience participation can be a dicey endeavour). Karis Anderson makes for a supreme Diana Ross; belting out the diva’s high notes and mastering her breathy, whispery vocal quality. Reece Richards oozes showmanship and is, frankly, a dance dynamo (as Jackie Wilson, a Temptation, a 4 Top, Rick James, and an ensemble performer).
There is plenty of punch in the dance routines. The classy choreography (by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams) is appropriate in style and pleasingly varied. There are slides, pivots, gestures, turns, double pirouettes, straddle jumps — and every routine is brilliantly executed, no matter how fleeting it is. The cast members demonstrate both technical prowess and natural rhythm, so the moves look great and the timing and synchronisation are on the money.
The narrative for Motown the Musical unfolds against a backdrop of social and political unrest as the civil rights movement emerges. The literal backdrop is a sight to behold – digital screens display footage of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and help scenes morph from one to the next. And the symbolic background of the significance of the Motown concerts themselves on race relations is a stark reminder of how important Motown music has been for black people in the USA.
In short, Motown the Musical has the heady harmonies, dazzling dance moves, cool composure and suave style that Gordy drilled his artists in.
The music and performance create such a party atmosphere that you can’t help but leave the theatre on a high. I can’t have been the only one ‘dancing in the street’ on the way to the car.
Motown the Musical continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 3rd August 2019.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.