★★★ | Mowtown The Musical
After borrowing $800 from his family, Berry Gordy bought a small house in suburban Detroit, built a recording studio and laid the foundation for one of the most successful record labels of all time. Boasting Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, amongst others, Motown records grew to be a phenomenon. Featuring songs including ‘Aint No Mountain High Enough, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, My Girl, Dancing In The Street and Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Motown The Musical delves into the story of the label including its meteoric rise and its troubles as the hits dried up.
The show is punchy and well-paced, moving along at breakneck speed through the label’s back catalogue set against a backdrop of both the rags to riches story of Berry Gordy and the recent social and political history of America. At a time when race riots, the assassination of JFK and Vietnam were at the forefront of the American consciousness, Gordy simply wanted to unify people with his music. The show presents a rather sanitised version of the record label’s history, and touches on Gordy’s relationship with Diana Ross and on his management of some of the biggest names in music. But it is the music which is the major draw here, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Edward Baruwa steps into the shoes of Gordy remarkably well, and has a soulful voice and a natural charisma, holding the show together with his almost constant on stage presence. Olivia Hibbert does a fine impression of Diana Ross, and Daniel Haswell stands out amongst the large ensemble with his performance as Stevie Wonder. The production is incredibly slick, with vivid colours, stunning costumes and an incredibly effective use of projected backdrops which is superb as it transports the audience from scene to scene.
It is difficult to deny the legacy of what Gordy created; the songs remain absolute classics, the artists are legends and the music lives on. Cramming such a sprawling tale into a two and half hour show is a challenge, but by keeping it relatively light and focussing on the music, Motown The Musical is ultimately a feel-good celebration of some of the biggest songs ever recorded.