Reviewed by Siobhan Bridgwater
Motown The Musical opens as it means to go on… blasting out a melody of music from the Four Tops and The Temptations. The two groups battle it out for centre stage, with all their tightly choreographed dance moves and wonderful stage outfits, during a very special performance. Set against a backdrop of evocative lighting and brilliant colour, the story of the record label is told from its inception, in flashbacks, starting on the night of its 25th anniversary celebrations.
This musical is based on a book written by Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown record label and its subsidiaries, who left his job at the car plant to follow his musical dreams. He is seen at the start of the show, stubbornly refusing to join the reunion party in 1983. Aggrieved and angry with all the artists he had supported during their early years only to leave his label for better deals as their careers rocketed, we see Berry left drowning in debt and fearful for the label’s future on the eve of the concert.
Gordy, superbly played by Edward Baruwa, we learn was not just a visionary but also a talented song-writer and record producer. His gift for identifying musical talent led him to sign the likes of Smokey Robinson, a young Diana Ross and The Supremes, the aforementioned Four Tops and The Temptations, The Commodores, a teenage Stevie Wonder, and the unstoppable Jackson 5 amongst many others, catapulting a successful national US label squarely on the world stage.
The show is driven at a merciless speed by the Motown Band, whose pony-tailed conductor can be seen careering the show forward with its electricity-charged performers, who take us back to where it all began.
Edward Baruwa, as Berry Gordy, is wonderful in this lead role with a strong vocal presence and sympathetic portrayal of this driven pioneer who forced “black music” into the mainstream radio stations. Nathan Lewis as Smokey Robinson is also a force to be reckoned with as a young, budding artist, who blossomed under Gordy’s guidance to become one to the major songwriters and producers at Motown. Note-perfect Nathan gives a captivating performance of this likeable man.
Karis Anderson’s Diana Ross is a sensation as she masterfully takes her character from a talented and eager teenager, “with the big eyes”, through to the legendary star. It is difficult at times to remember this is a portrayal and not the real deal as Karis Anderson embodies every inch of Miss Ross. Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye is also superb, adding texture and political context to the production, with a very captivating portrayal.
Each and every member of the ensemble took on multiple roles, throughout the evening, with unstoppable energy and enormous conviction. In the second act, a young Michael Jackson performer consistently threatens to steal the show with his fabulous moves and vocal range.
Special mention must also go to:
Choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams whose startling dedication to authenticity was neither unnoticed or unappreciated.
Ethan Popp for the unsurpassable Musical Supervision and Arrangement.
David Korins for the beautiful and imaginative sliding sets, spectacularly lit by Natasha Katz with eye-popping projections by Daniel Brodie.
Invaluable contributions also from Emilio Sosa on the brilliant Costume Design and Charles G Lapointe for an enormous array of wigs and hair designs taking us through the decades.
I could go on and on.
This team of performers and creative/production staff certainly have given their all to assembling a slick musical masterpiece which is well worth watching. The show ends with an incredible finale, back at the anniversary show which Berry eventually agrees to attend. With all his stars on one stage, and the projection and lighting directors going into overdrive, this is a full-on celebration and homage to an exceptional force.
It is an evening not to be missed for all soul fanatics.
Tickets cost from £15 (plus £3.65 transaction fee).
Motown The Musical is at the Bristol Hippodrome from 10 January to 2 February 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com/bristol or call the box office on 0844 871 3012.
Bristol Hippodrome, St Augustine’s Parade, Bristol, BS1 4UZ | 0844 871 3012