Reviewed by Catherine Joyce
Last night we went to Blackpool to see Motown the Musical. Blackpool Opera House is a lovely theatre situated in the Winter Gardens complex in the centre of the town and we always enjoy seeing shows there as all the seats have a good view and the staff are so friendly. We knew Blackpool was going to be busy as it was the annual “Ride the Lights” night so we set off early, to be sure we got a space in the car park, and walked into Blackpool for something to eat.
The musical tells the story of the Motown record label, from its formation in 1959 by Berry Gordy with an $800 loan from his family, up until its anniversary 25 years later. Berry Gordy is a failed auto factory worker who, although writing successful songs for some well-known singers, never seemed to see much money so decides to create his own record label to give young black people a way into music. Gordy signs Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and The Jackson Five amongst many others and the Motown Label grew from strength to strength. We follow the story over the years and see the success unfold and also the developing relationship between Gordy and Diana Ross.
The show features over 50 popular songs such as ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours, ‘My Girl’, ‘War’, ‘Stop In the Name of Love’, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’. With 50 songs to get through in the evening not all were played in their entirety which was a shame but understandable given the limited time. Accompanied by a live orchestra, under musical director Griff Johnson, it really was a treat to hear accomplished musicians playing such memorable hits.
The entire cast was amazing, their energy, vitality and voices had to be seen to be believed. The stars of the night were Edward Baruwa as Berry and Olivia Hibbert as Diana Ross. Edward had an amazing voice and he was a pleasure to listen to. The songs he sang showed just how powerful his voice was and I could have listened to him all night! Olivia made a wonderful Diana Ross, transforming from a young schoolgirl eager for fame into the world’s most famous diva with not only a great voice but a strong stage presence too.
Berry’s story began in 1938 with his memory as a young boy of Joe Louis fighting the German boxer Max Schmeling and ended in the much more glamorous 1980’s. The costumes reflected the changing fashions in every part of the story. There were quite a number of costume changes, especially for the girls and they did this quickly and seamlessly.
That isn’t to say that they were the only highlights, every single member of the cast was brilliant, if I had to pick out a couple more I’d mention Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye and Daniel Haswell as Stevie Wonder. A special mention must also be made of Carlo Braithwaite who took on the roles of young Berry, Stevie Wonder and especially Michael Jackson.
With so many bands and singers being a part of the Motown story, the cast was equally large. Generally, only a few were on stage at any particular time but when they did all take to the stage for larger numbers the effect was amazing. Towards the end of the first half the label was facing pressure from black activists and the war in Vietnam and I was particularly impressed with the dance that accompanied “War” by Edwin Starr which was immediately followed by “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.
The Opera House has a large stage which was especially handy with such a large cast. Using an almost completely digital set the story switched effortlessly between scenes and locations and I was in danger of becoming fascinated almost as much with the set as the story! During the Jackson 5’s appearance on TV in the 1970’s the set was able to give a great 70’s feel that must have way outstripped anything that was actually available at the time!
One slightly awkward bit of the show was when Diana Ross invited audience members to join her on the stage in Las Vegas and to sing with her. Last night Honey from Blackpool and Sharon from Bury volunteered and did really well but I can’t help but feel that it was a bit unnecessary?
From what I could hear on the way out of the theatre almost everybody there had a great time, it was obvious that some of the audience had seen the show before and I can see why they came back for more!
I enjoy Motown music and was looking forward to seeing the show and it really exceeded our expectations. It’s a long time since I have seen such an impressive performance and such fantastic singers and we were singing the songs all the way home! Even if you are not a huge Motown fan you will enjoy this show as it is full of classic hits that you will know.
Tickets cost from £15 (booking fees may apply).
Motown The Musical is at Blackpool Opera House from 27-31 August 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk or call the box office on 0844 856 1111.
Winter Gardens & Opera House Theatre, 97 Church Street, Blackpool, Lancashire, FY1 1H