Review: Motown the Musical at Mayflower Theatre

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Taking the audience on an immersive journey through the life of Berry Gordy (Edward Baruwa) and Motown Records, Motown: The Musical begins and ends on the night of Motown Records 25thanniversary; screening the 1983 televised event behind the actors on stage in their lookalike ensemble. This cyclical narrative used the outstanding list of songs at its disposal to create a light-hearted, entertaining and lively first half, setting up for the more gloomy and political second half that would follow (as the set up goes for many musicals). However, Motown: The Musical still managed to end on a lively note, as the audience stood, danced and clapped along with the cast to their final song, making for unmatchable energy.

Lighting and costumes throughout the show were faultless, with costumes perfectly suited to characters, context and history – from Diana Ross’ (Karis Anderson) fabulous gowns, to the black power movements leather jackets, baggy jeans and hippie chic – it felt you were truly witnessing the events occur in front of your eyes. Additional screens and superb lighting made for the ‘wow’ factor. Motown’s signature ‘M’ transcending through an array of colours to open the musical, and a ‘battle of the bands’ between The Temptations and Four Tops enhanced with alternating red and blue spotlights on each band illustrating this skillful lighting. Whilst the screens allowed for greater storytelling through the use of location prompt, i.e. the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and entrancing psychedelic backdrops, they also further added to this heavily political musical, superimposing racial slurs and ‘KKK Territory’ signs on a map as The Supremes performed and were shot at. A particular moment when the lighting and costumes combined to make for beautiful viewing was when The Supremes performed on British TV. In their 60s-themed pink dresses, a television-shaped screen matched this colour perfectly, making their performance even more enchanting.

Sound also aided the storyline and how it was told; characters voices filling the theatre as they sung, becoming subtler as they spoke, and changing pitch/clarity/tone when Pirate Radio made an appearance, and as television news and radio reporters spoke. This informed audiences of the spatial and contextual relation such side-characters had to the show, as they summarised recent events or critiqued Motown and its artists. Gordy even tuned into the radio to hear MLK’s speech and witness the news that JFK had been shot in their crackly tones – further emphasising the shows political undertones. Such themes sparked confrontation of Gordy’s willingness to aid or hinder the black rights movement, when Marvin Gaye (Shak Gabbidon-Williams) pleaded to create a protest album inspired by the wrongs of the world post-MLK shooting, and Gorby remained reluctant due to the impact it could have on his company and Gaye’s career, eventually placing morals over money and agreeing to it.

One of the most striking aspects of Motown: The Musical was the sheer talent held by its cast members. Karis Anderson expressed such star power and prowess it was hard not to be fooled that she was the real Diana Ross, particularly when she invited members of the crowd to sing ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ with her on stage, whilst the audience were instructed to hold hands with one another and sway them in the air. Alternatively, Shak Gabbidon-Williams (Marvin Gaye) didn’t hold the same ‘wow’ factor as Anderson but made for the most comical character by far. Constantly irritating Gorby with his quick-witted humour and producing lots of laughter from the audience, despite his political attitudes mentioned above. Finally, young Brando Velho melted the audience as young Michael Jackson, his talent and cheeky charm making it impossible not to smile.

Motown: The Musical is an exceptional musical, tackling problems surrounding race, particularly in the period of 1938-1983 America (when the show is set), all whilst remaining fun and memorable through its heavily-interactive and comical script. Considering few West End/Broadway musicals have black-dominant casts, let alone actually confront POC issues, it’s refreshing to see Gordy’s Motown remain a popular musical – evident through the packed and lively crowd witnessed at Mayflower Theatre this October 1st. The recent work of Lin-Manuel Miranda with Hamilton continues to tell the history and stories of black America, continuing the legacy of Motown Records (and Motown: The Musical) in its showcasing of black artists.

Despite Gordy leaving some of the more topical issues surrounding his personal life and some hidden horrors of Motown Records out of the script – i.e. Flo’s removal from The Supremes and later sudden death brushed over with a quip from Gordy’s character that “the pressure of fame is too vicious. Not everyone can go the distance” – Motown: The Musical still made for an informative and enjoyable experience. And although not all moments were historically factually (or rather fully telling), the battle of the bands mentioned above and the 25thanniversary of Motown Records, amongst other moments, compare almost identically to the real happenings of such events, confirming that Motown: The Musical is not just your standard funny and engaging musical, but somewhat informative and educational too. Without a doubt, anyone who gets the chance to should watch this show.

Motown the Musical is performing at Mayflower Theatre until October 12th.

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