Mo­town’s magic reigns Supreme

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - MUSICALS -

‘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

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