Theatre Review: MOTOWN THE MUSICAL – Opera House, Manchester

The Four Tops in MOTOWN THE MUSICAL

The Four Tops in MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

With its goldmine of hits, MOTOWN THE MUSICAL is a feel-good show about this iconic period in music and popular culture history

Mention the word Motown and you’re more likely to think of the US city of Detroit, not the UK city of Manchester. Yet this humble Northern city has more links to the iconic record label than you may think as MOTOWN THE MUSICAL aptly demonstrates.

Based on the autobiography by Berry Gordy Jr., MOTOWN THE MUSICAL follows the highs and lows of the iconic record label which found and nurtured stars as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and The Temptations.

Taking us from Gordy’s childhood to the iconic MOTOWN 25 award-winning 1983 TV special, the jukebox musical tells the story behind Motown, the personal relationships, the professional struggles, and, of course, the music that went onto make history and change the face of popular culture.

With its fast-moving panels, David Korins’ set may be simplistic in design but makes good use of Daniel Brodie’s innovative projection which expertly transforms from one scene to the next, recreating rooms, theatres, music halls and streets, as well as vibrant backdrops for star-studded performances.

The Company of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL

The Company of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

The musical also doesn’t shy away from bringing the civil unrest of the time to the forefront with the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. made all the more poignant by the devastatingly moving performances of WAR, WHAT’S GOING ON and MERCY MERCY ME.

In true Motown style, all of the cast are slick, well-rehearsed and vocally on point from the first chord to the last bow. Edward Baruwa makes for a sympathetic and likeable Gordy, transforming from the highly ambitious and innocent young man to the successful record label manager who feels angry and bitter when his biggest stars start to jump ship, leading to the eventual decline of the Detroit record label.

Karis Anderson’s Diana Ross also undergoes a significant transformation from eager schoolgirl with big dreams to an international megastar, dazzling in her performance of REACH OUT AND TOUCH which sees a member of the audience take to the stage. Shak Gabbidon-Williams also gives a convincing performance as Marvin Gaye, the troubled youngster caught between his desire to entertain and his wish to change the world.

The Company of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL

The Company of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

While occasionally the flow of the piece is interrupted by the overly cheesy script and the odd cartoonish character, its stunning soundtrack more than makes up for it. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL is a goldmine of hits with over 50 songs featuring including MY GUY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DANCING IN THE STREET, I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE and AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH which are either performed in concert or cleverly integrated into the narrative to push it forward.

The Manchester scene, which sees Berry and Diana have a massive fight over a song before eventually reconciling, also helps the musical hold a special place in the audience’s heart. During the interval, Director Charles Randolph-Wright told me that every time Berry thinks of Manchester, he thinks of Diana and how much he loved her, which is why Manchester plays such an integral part to the story.

Well Berry, it may have been over 50 years since you and the Tamla-Motown Revue arrived in town but if the press night for MOTOWN THE MUSICAL is anything to do by, Manchester still loves you and your music very much.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL runs at the Opera House, Manchester until 23 March 2019.