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Review: Motown the Musical (Alexandra Theatre and UK tour)

Berry Gordy's back catalogue comes to the stage in a brand new UK tour

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Karis Anderson (Diana Ross) and Edward Baruwa (Berry Gordy) in Motown the Musical
© Tristam Kenton

With a successful ongoing run in the West End, Motown the Musical now hits the road with a year-long tour beginning at Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre.

Based on the book by Motown founder Berry Gordy, the show covers the highs and lows of the legendary Detroit music label which changed the face not just of music but of popular culture. The launchpad for stars including Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and The Temptations, Motown became a hit machine.

The musical takes us from Gordy's childhood where he dreams of making a difference, through the foundation of Motown with an $800 loan into the finding and nurturing of the stars – and then onto the decline of the label as those same stars were snapped up by companies with bigger budgets.

The Motown music is very much brought to the fore with excerpts from more than 50 songs including "My Guy", "My Girl", "Happy Birthday", "Dancing in the Street", "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Stop! In The Name of Love". In places the songs take the story forwards, in others it's sheer indulgence in a good tune performed with gusto by a very talented cast but when it's Motown the Musical who can complain?

With Gordy on the producing team, it's not surprising that it's a sympathetic view of the Motown founder as the stars he created gradually jump ship leaving him struggling with both finances and the disillusionment of seeing his dream falter. Edward Baruwa is a highly likeable Gordy who aims to promote new talent, make good music and create a family atmosphere at his label. But we also see how the disappointments weigh on his shoulders until that naïve and optimistic youngster becomes bitter and angry at the stars he feels have betrayed him.

Karis Anderson's Diana Ross also undergoes a massive transformation from eager schoolgirl through ambitious pop singer to megastar. As she takes to the stage playing Las Vegas we see just how far she and Motown have come.

Shak Gabbidon-Williams also gives a convincing performance as Marvin Gaye. Here we see a troubled youngster caught between his desire to entertain and his wish to change the world.

The musical sets the Motown story firmly in its period with news and politics also taking the narrative into new directions. With the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr featured, we see how a music label which largely promoted black performers could never be just about entertainment.

Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, the production makes brilliant use of projection, very often in place of traditional scenery. David Korins' scenic design and Daniel Brodie's projection design are an integral part of the story – recreating rooms, theatres, music halls and streets but also sharing television film, photographs and posters from the time. The film really takes on a life of its own when it becomes psychedelic adding energy and colour to the performances of the many singers.

Motown the Musical won't just appeal to fans of the label. So many of the songs are so integral to modern culture it's near impossible not to know and enjoy them particularly when they are given a new lease of life in the production. Blend this with a strong story at the heart of the musical and you have a gold disc of a show.