Motown’s magic reigns Supreme
‘Motown the Musical’ is a joyous celebration of one of the most definitive sounds of the Sixties, writes Anne Marie Scanlon
IT’S a Bucket List dream: see all the stars of Motown live on stage in one place. It was all inspired by an event in 1983, when the musicians of Motown reunited in LA to celebrate 25 years of the legendary record label.
This is also the starting point for Motown the Musical which looks back at the first quarter-century of the label, while also telling the story of Berry Gordy — the man who created the brand.
Gordy also created the careers of some of the all-time greats. The songwriter and producer coined the term Motown, short for Motor Town, in honour of the city where the label was founded — Detroit, then the home of General Motors.
Gordy had worked on a GM production line and applied this knowledge to the music industry managing to become one of the most successful African American business owners in an era where some States were still segregated.
Gordy and Motown launched the successful careers of many black artists such as The Supremes, ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Temptations, and, of course, Diana Ross.
Gordy himself wrote this show and doesn’t hold back on the significant role Diana Ross played in his personal life. (To be honest, I think he still loves her.) The rest of Gordy’s personal life (three wives and eight children) doesn’t really feature — but to be fair to the writer, he doesn’t present himself as saintly or perfect.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Gordy faced much criticism from the black community, who rounded on the fact that while Motown was a black-owned label which promoted black artists, it was run by white men, and this is addressed more than once in the show.
But all of this is by the by. While the story of Motown and Gordy’s life is interesting, the real draw is the music, with over 50 Motown hits being sung in full or in part.
That Gordy and his team had an ear for a good tune is beyond doubt and the vast majority of the audience — made up of all ages — knew all the words to sing along.
Gordy is also a notorious perfectionist and it certainly shows. Motown the Musical goes beyond jukebox musical, and all the performances — acting, dancing and singing — are extraordinary and at no point do you feel like you’re watching a tribute act.
The fine details are also spot-on, with costumes and sets being recreated in detail from original shows and TV appearances. The costume department deserves special credit — especially with the period outfits as worn by ‘ordinary’ people. All too often in theatre people are clothed in the designer’s idea of what that era looked like.
The show also deploys an audio visual display of images, news and TV reports to put events in the context of the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Vietnam and the rise of the Black Power movement.
One particularly moving scene between Berry Gordy (Jay Perry, who plays a blinder throughout) and Marvin Gaye (a fantastic Carl Spencer) stands out. When Gaye, who was one of the most successful Motown artists, wants to use his platform and music for political protest his mentor insists that he’s just a pop star.
This scene also contains the sad and prophetic line that Gaye says to Gordy: “I have a father.” (Gaye was shot dead on the eve of his 45th birthday by his own father.)
The staging of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles singing You Really Got a Hold on Me in front of a segregated audience is, to my mind, the best scene in the whole show. The music is top notch — as it is throughout but this scene is a reminder to modern audiences of how brutal segregation was.
As police escorts on stage start throwing the N-word around like snuff at a wake, my 11-year-old child’s jaw literally dropped. He was horrified, as were many in the audience. And despite this David Albury as Smokey still makes the audience laugh.
Finally, Diana Ross. While Jay Perry was astonishing as Berry Gordy, most of the audience don’t have a personal relationship with him. Diana Ross though, is quite a different matter. We’ve all grown up with her, her songs and those of The Supremes have been our collective soundtrack. And Natalie Kassanga was her.
Honestly, grown men and women, myself included, forgot that we weren’t in the presence of Miss Diana Ross. And when we did remember we didn’t care. As the theatre emptied at the end of the night, there was actually some dancing in the streets.
‘Of course, the draw is the music — with over 50 Motown hits being sung in full or in part’
‘Motown the Musical’ is at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from February 5-23 with tickets from €21 available from www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie or www.ticketmaster.ie
Berry Gordy wrote the show and doesn’t hold back on the significant role Diana Ross played in his personal life