LOOKING down the names of the characters in this show, with legendary Motown recording stars like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson Five amongst them, my companion remarked “”I know all of them but who is Berry Gordy?” And I dare say the same thought crossed the minds of many of the other members of a Hippodrome audience packed with Motown music connoisseurs and enthusiasts.
Immediately after the pulsating, terrifically choreographed opening sequence those who did not know him were introduced to Berry Gordy, the man who founded and ran Motown records for 30-plus years before selling it on to MCA for $61 million. A great innovator and picker of new talent, Gordy was also no mean hand at songwriting, being the co-writer of 240 of the 15,000 in the company’s catalogue which contains hundreds of hit numbers. The problem is that Gordy, who wrote this show in an attempt to re-establish the record labels’ reputation and put to rest many of the myths that have grown up about the company’s demise, has tried to shoehorn too many of those wonderful numbers (snippets of more thatn 50 are included) into a show which also tries to tell you about the personal relationships between Berry Gordy and that long list of legendary artists. As a results many of the songs and characters are not fully developed. All too often you are just sitting back enjoying being taken back to those halcyon days which saw black artists at last being given the opportunity to show their talents to a world wide audience, when the number is cut off in its prime. Whilst quite a few of those famous players come and go at such a pace in Charles Randolph-Wright’s fast moving production that you almost have to pinch yourself in order to convince yourself that you really saw them.
Four people who are fully drawn are Barry Gordy, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. There is no doubting that Edward Baruwa is the star of the show giving a true bravura performance as Berry Gordy. Not surprisingly having written the script, Berry Gordy skates quickly over any faults in his own character, but he gives Edward Baruwa a string of strong numbers which he swallows whole like a ravenous Lion. Mr Baruwa also has the advantage of Berry Gordy being unknown as a singer so the audience have no one else with whom to compare his presentation. Unlike Karis Anderson whose every move and note is compared to Diana Ross. Although this is a good performance, skilfully incorporating many of those signature moves and sounds of Diana Ross, that mystical something that placed Miss Ross above the rest is missing. To a certain extent Nathan Lewis and Shak Gabbidon-Williams suffer the same fate portraying Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, not quite reaching the heights despite giving two very acceptable performances.
Making excellent use of lighting and video screens the production buzzes along at a terrific pace, as does the musical director/keyboard player Griff Johnson who could be described as Mr Perpetual Motion, on the move from the first to last note of the production, at the end he looked more exhausted than even the hard working talented ensemble.
Motown the Musical continues at Bristol until 2nd February