Motown the Musical is crammed with classic tunes from the likes of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5. But whilst the music is a triumph, it’s just that there’s a little too much music for a musical…
We were invited along to the press night of Motown the Musical which is now showing at the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) until April 6th.
Motown the Musical centres around the real life story of Berry Gordy (Edward Baruwa), who quickly discovered that there was more of a money making opportunity in producing music than in composing it. With just $800 from his mum and a little money of his own, he sets up a small independent record label – Motown.
Essentially Motown the Musical is a rags to riches story. Gordy with his humble beginnings hits the big time, big style. With a knack for picking out guaranteed hits, combined with his dogged perseverance, he turns Motown into the most successful record label in soul history. In just ten years, spanning from 1961 to 1971, it had over 100 top ten US hits.
The story starts with Gordy sat in his lounge point blank refusing to go to the 25th Anniversary party for Motown. Before we find out more, we are then thrown back in time to when a younger Gordy first has the ambition to go it alone.
We see him set up the label, recruit a mass of gifted black singers and deliver hit after hit after hit. This is against a backdrop of racism where there is still segregation in the US and where black singers were not played on the main radio stations. Gordy ensures that they are treated like stars and they soon transform into the icons we still remember and listen to today.
The whole production is polished. Expect fantastically flamboyant costumes, sleek choreography, seamless stage changes and a vocal extravaganza in which the cast belt out a staggering 50 hit songs. These include much loved classics as ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, ‘Dancing in the Street’, ‘I Heard it Through The Grapevine’, ‘Reet Petite’ and ‘ABC’ to name just a few.
There is no disputing the talent on show. Baruwa brings effortless soul to his portrayal of Gordy, and Karis Anderson is a perfect Diana Ross, both vocally and in her overall performance. Their duet of ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ was a definite highlight. Smokey Robinson (Nathan Lewis) and Marvin Gaye (Shak Gabbidon-Williams) were also equally fantastic.
Musically, Motown the Musical delivers. But, if anything, there is too much music. Is that even fair to say when reviewing a musical? Well, I guess I just did. The consequence of a packed score, with tune after tune, with some overly truncated just to squeeze them in, meant that the flow of the story was compromised.
There wasn’t enough dialogue or plot development for you to fully engage in the story or side with the characters. Yes it touches on some of the conflict of the time; it acknowledges the civil rights movement, shows some of the challenges they faced and admits that not all was rosey. But all of it feels fleeting and a little too rushed. Similarly the love relationship between Ross and Gordy is barely touched upon and is over in a flash before it really started.
As the story is based on Gordy’s own autobiography and is produced by the man himself, who is reportedly a very private person, perhaps there is little surprise that this is a superficial, one-sided view of the events. When you compare it to the backstory of Carole King for example, which shows such a tender vulnerable quality, or that of Hairspray, where a similar subject of equality is more sympathetically highlighted, I just couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed in this aspect.
Saying that, I wholeheartedly enjoyed the music and it reminded me of some great Motown classics that I’d long forgotten. I was, along with most of the audience, up on my feet bopping away to Stevie Wonder at the end for the final curtain. Of course, maybe the showcasing of the music was the Soul (see what I did there) intention of the show, and if that was the case, then there is no disputing that Motown the Musical ‘Signed, sealed and delivered’!
Motown the Musical is at the WMC and is showing until 6th April 2019.
Age guidance 11+
Booking at: www.wmc.org.uk
Thank you to Wales Millennium Centre for inviting us to the press night of Motown the Musical.
All photos courteous of the WMC.