Motown the Musical is the Jukebox Musical perfected.

And not just perfected.

Modernised. Invigorated. A seemingly impossible congruence of whippet-fast pacing, dazzlingly modern technical and artistic design, sparkling kinetic direction and the unmatchable pedigree of what was arguably (okay, okay, inarguably) music’s finest hour.

Telling the story of the titular movement’s spirited impresario, Berry Gordy (Edward Baruwa), on paper Motown has all the makings of a tried-and-true, dyed-in-the-wool Jukebox. A true story that follows its main character from hopeful young dreamer through to the heights of success, and subsequent wilderness, you could almost excuse Motown for playing it safe, especially considering the nigh-sacred era through which it treads, and doubly so considering it was penned by none other than Gordy himself. 

But right from the off, it’s clear that, much like its veritable pantheon of Soul superstars ranging from The Supremes to The Temptations, Michael Jackson to Marvin Gaye, Motown is not about simply playing fiddle to the conventions of yesteryear.

Gordy’s book, in tandem with Brian Harlan Brooks’ masterful, slick handling of Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams’ original choreography, all under the deft hand of Charles Randolph-Wright’s purposeful, punchy direction, quickly dash any expectations of lengthy scenes chewing the fat in music studios or overwrought and over-long phone conversations between distant lovers or concerned parents. Instead, they throw the Motown story into a vibrant blender of show-stopping musical sequences, dazzling production values and a truly savvy and inventive use of its catalogue of hits to keep the admittedly fairly surface story buzzing along.

And whilst some may think Motown lacking any major surprises or shocks in comparison to most of its real-life inspired jukebox peers would lead to a forgettable or perfunctory tale, you’d misjudge the entire thing. True, there are no drug overdoses, deaths or any other seeming jukebox morbid de factos, but that’s not the point. There’s an abundance of personality and drama, and perfectly pitched character that doesn’t just reek of imitation. Baruwa’s take on Gordy is an astonishing, commanding and soulful turn that, like much of the show as a whole, doesn’t take itself too seriously or let itself be too bogged down by subtext or subplot.

Bar dipping the occasional toe into the anarchy and confusion that followed major happenings such as JFK’s assassination and the shooting of Martin Luther King, Motown mostly keeps things light, and, again, works all the better for it. When you’re dealing with some of the most upbeat, joyous and infectious hits in the history of music, it helps to let your audience feel they’re actually allowed to be enjoying themselves, something Motown excels at.

Outside of some of the biggest names who casually pop in and out of the story, the show finds itself mostly focusing on Gordy’s own journey and ambitions, and the parallel rising star of Diana Ross (Karis Anderson), or ‘the one with the big eyes’ as Gordy refers to her. Anderson’s performance is similarly exceptional, charting Ross’ growth from aspiring young schoolgirl hoping to get noticed alongside her friends, to an extended set piece in the second act which perfectly encapsulates the eventual diva’s ability to have an audience quite literally in the palm of her hands. That she visibly and audibly grows in voice and stature on stage over the course of the show’s running time is a testament to Anderson’s talents, and the shrewd direction empowering her.

Elsewhere, Nathan Lewis is a loveable, reliable presence as the ever-loyal Smokey Robinson, whilst Shak Gabbidon-Williams is in fine voice and gives a suitably smooth turn as Marvin Gaye. A razor-sharp ensemble and swing, many on multi-role duty, ensure the superb performances front and centre are always matched in force around and about them.

Special mention must also go to the creative team who have crafted such a visual treat. Staging is, sadly, often one of the most rudimentary and uninspiring elements of many a jukebox, but here, Motown shines as bright as any of its lineup of stars. From remarkably versatile and effective digital flats ingeniously used to create a sense of place throughout, spanning the eras of Motown’s reign with authenticity and vibrancy, to floods of colour, stock footage and era-perfect lighting, all supplemented with faultless and creative transitions, Motown looks and moves as slickly and colourfully as any contemporary theatre production could hope to, praise that is only heightened by dint of this being a touring production with little-to-no compromises on this vision made.

Plenty of shows have tackled some great music or eras. 

Buddy. Jersey Boys. 20th Century Boy. Even Tonight’s the Night (remember that one?).

Few, if any, though, have inherited quite so legendary a catalogue as Motown. Its seemingly endless supply of mega-wattage hits would likely have been enough to secure bums on seats in and of themselves. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. “Dancing in the Street”. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. “ABC.” The list goes on. 

And yet, much like those whose artistry and careers it depicts on stage, all involved here were clearly not willing to just coast on what has gone by before. No playing it safe. No pandering to the typical. Rather, they have assembled a show that ends up being one of the most impressive touring productions in recent times across-the-board. An almost disarmingly modern, enthused and charismatic explosion of colour, music and joy, littered with plenty of audience interaction throughout. A soulful, oft-beautiful and utterly inimitable slice of entertainment that cannot come recommended enough, and one that proudly, loudly and resolutely does its own thing.

And in that way, if none else, Motown the Musical becomes the very essence of its namesake.


Runs 11th Oct - 3rd November

Tickets: 0844 871 3011

Book Online

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Readers who submit articles must agree to our terms of use. The content is the sole responsibility of the contributor and is unmoderated. But we will react if anything that breaks the rules comes to our attention. If you wish to complain about this article, contact us here