This is one of those shows that is best enjoyed if you approach it with the intention of having a carefree, fun evening out – not a deep and meaningful analysis of the Motown phenomenon.
That is not to say it is just a jukebox musical with endless greatest hits songs and some flimsy vehicle to justify it being on a stage. The truth lies somewhere between the two.
I certainly came out of the show surprised how little I had actually known about Motown and some of the backstories of some of those biggest names in popular music of the late 20th century. Within the confines of a stage show there are limits on how much detail you can go into and here the emphasis was very much on the ambitions, successes and disappointments of the founder of Motown Berry Gordy and (which I knew nothing about) his relationship with Diana Ross. Other characters remain two-dimensional and others just make singing appearances.
This is all set against the politics of the United States in the 1960s some of which was handled well, the civil rights movement the United States, the evolution of the black civil rights movement, the murders of JFK and Martin Luther King. All were charted by showing their influence on the artists and staff of Motown. Less successful was the romp through the later 1960s through Vietnam War to the Moon landings. This all became a blur.
Having written the book on which the musical is based, not surprisingly it does focus on Berry Gordy, but it is not just a huge at on the back. It shows some of his weaknesses, and the framework of the show is his sulking and refusing to go to a 25th anniversary party with some of the record labels biggest stars. Flashback to the start of the label and the musical whistle-stop romp through the back catalogue and stellar list of artists commences. Stars who feature heavily include Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and, particularly, Smokey Robinson.
In that leading role Edward Baruwa is excellent and has a glorious voice. In fact, you are left wondering why he wasn’t Motown Records biggest singing sensation! The show stands or falls on his holding the whole show together, along with Karis Anderson as Diana Ross, from enthusiastic youngster, pliable artist to independent superstar.
Most importantly, the singing and playing from the band of those unforgettable songs from possibly the most joyful, soulful and, perhaps optimistic and innocent, of musical times cannot fail to get your feet tapping and put a smile on your face.
Karis Anderson and Edward Baruwa
The production itself is functional rather than excessive, relying more on video projections (such as all those pivotal moments from the second half of the 20th century), and psychedelic visuals by Daniel Brodie on a quite minimalist set by David Korin.
The audience for the show was mixed in ages although understandably slightly grey and perhaps surprisingly white but perhaps that just represents the demographic of Wales Millennium Centre’s audience whatever the performance. Maybe it was just the night I was there. In the show Berry Gordy dismisses a white DJ saying the station did not play black music with the assertion it was popular music for everybody. This would certainly be the case for this feelgood musical.
Oh – and when Michael Jackson and his brothers appeared on stage the audience was clearly delighted. Interesting.
Until April 6
Images: Tristram Kenton