Funk Soul Brother
Berry Gordy. The man, the myth, the legendary hit maker. Surmounting overwhelming odds, Gordy flourished when he really should have floundered. A young, black man from motor city, Detroit, Gordy had the gall to start a record label during the turbulent and segregated 1950s. At a time when radio and television stations in the US operated with strict restrictions when it came to promoting black musicians. Undeterred, Gordy, with a family loan of $1,000, went on to create one of the most successful and iconic record labels of all time; Motown, with its several subsidiaries including Tamla Motown. A label which launched the careers of such musical luminaries as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and many, many more. As well as producing some of the greatest songs of the twentieth century. With book by Berry Gordy and music from the Motown catalogue, “Motown: The Musical” takes you on a journey through the magic, memories, and music that is Motown, delivering a joyous nights entertainment that, like its timeless songs, never stops giving.
Inspired by boxer Joe Louis to be the best Gordy that he could be, there ain’t no mountain high enough can hold back the irrepressible young Gordy in 1950s Detroit. Yet it’s a dejected Berry Gordy we first met. It's 1983 and Gordy is too proud, or too bitter, to attend the 25th anniversary celebration for Motown Records. Everyone who’s everyone is going to be there. But Gordy, looking back over the many highs and hard hitting lows that brought him and Motown to this moment, is unsure of his life, his label, and his stable of musicians. Or his extended family as he’s come to consider them. For if Motown is a family it’s one that’s all grown up, and in some cases grown apart. One that may very well be falling apart. But can you close the door on the people you’ve loved, lived, and shared a lifetime of music with?
Using Gordy’s autobiography as its foundation stone “Motown: The Musical” negotiates an uneasy balance, honouring Gordy’s personal tales as well as highlighting the growth of Motown during a period of unprecedented social upheaval. If, like Gordy, “Motown: The Musical” tries to be all things to all people and suffers a little for doing so, both manage to bring it all home in the end. But a little knowledge goes a long way to deepening the “Motown: The Musical” experience. If Gordy’s warts and all relationship with Diana Ross is played front and centre, their son is never mentioned. Nor is his relationship with his son, the artist Rockwell. Again, while Gordy-driven movies Lady Sings The Blues and Mahogany get favourable mentions, others like the lamentable The Wiz, or the delightfully disastrous The Last Dragon linger in silence. And the importance of Marvin Gaye’s extraordinary 1971 album What’s Goin’ On, now recognised as an all time classic, is very much understated. That being said, whittling down with so much to choose from was never going to be an easy task. And some elements have been adjusted from the original 2013 Broadway production, now tailored for European audiences. Including a clever reference to Radio Caroline for those who remember. For those who don't there’s still a constellation of iconic stars and tunes to enjoy. And production values that are second to none.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright does a sterling job bringing together the various competing strands, marshalling his creative team whose different disciplines blend beautifully in this fast flowing production. David Korins superb scenic design, all sliding frames and silhouettes, wonderfully evokes an old world, television screen sensibility. Natasha Katz superlative lighting design, along with Daniel Brodie’s hypnotic projections, see the stage emblazoned with Fremont Street styled fluorescences of iconic signs and images, with perfectly timed transitions being flawlessly executed. Emlio Sosa’s catalogue of time capsuled costumes, all flairs and fringes or iconic renderings, look superbly fresh. Choreography by Warren Adams and Patricia Wilcox delightfully channels the classics, even if Michael Jacksons first ever moonwalk, performed live during the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever show in 1983, isn’t included.
When it comes to Motown it’s always about the music, of which there is inevitably too much and not enough. If the sixty plus songs referenced make for a pretty big iceberg of tunes, it’s still only the tip, and you can be sure some personal favourites won’t get to surface. Yet those that do are performed with gusto, even if comparisons with the originals are always going to ask some questions. Especially as opting to abridge several songs, or reducing them to a few lines in a medley, sees several lacking that extra bit of oomph. But those songs that have it, knock it out of the park.
Primarily due to singers Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye, Nathan Lewis as Smokey Robinson, and Karis Anderson as Diana Ross who deliver powerfully throughout. Supported by a hugely impressive ensemble undertaking some heavy minor roles. Throughout, the joy of the music is loud and infectious. Never more so than when singers break the fourth wall and invite the audience to play along. Yet the centrepiece around which everything, and everyone, revolves is an outstanding Edward Baruwa as Gordy, whose show stopping rendition of Can I Close The Door (On Love) is simply sublime.
Control freak, Svengali, or Hitsville genius, Berry Gordy, and the record company he created, have shaped and influenced countless millions and reshaped the face of music. Like jazz and blues, Motown has become an integral part of the fabric of popular music the world over. Its legacy, impact and influence is endless. It’s a tall order for any musical to try and do justice to. But “Motown: The Musical” is well up to task. Part history lesson, part biography, all music, “Motown: The Musical” delivers a rousing celebration of life, love, and of perseverance in the face of adversity. It might well have you dancing in the streets. You’ll certainly be singing, both during and afterwards.
“Motown: The Musical” book by Berry Gordy, with music from the Motown catalogue, presented by Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris, Adam Spiegel and Berry Gordy, runs at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until February 23.
For more information, visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.