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Review of Motown The Musical at Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes

Motown the Musical has had international success both sides of the Atlantic, much like the music it tells the story of. However, despite that success, this jukebox musical, which at times feels like it is on speed dial, due to the intensity of the music, is a mixture of quality, especially when it comes to that second act.

Motown the Musical is as much about the music, as it's founder Berry Gordy, and that's no surprise as this 2013 musical is based on his autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. And it is safe to say that despite the talent around him, busy bringing icons of music to the stage, this show is also mostly about Edward Baruwa who plays Berry Gordy.

Baruwa gives an exceptional performance, maybe one of the strongest individual ones I have seen on the Milton Keynes stage to date. His depth of emotion in not only his acting but also the emotion he puts through his own renditions of Gordy's songs is exceptional, his voice, simply put, is incredible. It is safe to say that this show would be incredibly poorer for his absence.

Elsewhere, there is more quality, Karis Anderson develops her performance of Diana Ross with clarity, making her first act and second act Ross so believably different as the seeds of ambition sow and are finally sown.

Nathan Lewis is a nicely underplayed Smokey Robinson, committed like no other to Gordy, as all others leave him behind. Also, Shak Gabbidon-Williams is a great presence as the much more ambitious Marvin Gaye, needing to put his beliefs through his work more than any other.

Motown deals with history well, it is episodic at times, which does weaken it a little, but as it whistles through racial tension, assassination and wars, the journey of the music, and its relevance to that history are extremely well presented.

The vital music, of course, is mostly excellently reproduced, with more than a few interesting renditions of classics. Perhaps at times, there is too much music, with some of the fifty plus songs gracing the stage for only a few seconds, leaving you wanting at times more of some of the best songs.

While there is a lot of good about Motown, there are a few moments less effective, all in the much weaker second act, which until late in the act, seems like the show has derailed under the strength of its first. Anderson's character Ross is a victim of one of the bad moments of the show, where during her solo debut, the dreaded audience participation moment crops up. I've never been a fan of these, mainly because more often than not they end in cringe or awkwardness. The performance I saw resulted in what felt like a very poorly written plant (more than happy to be told wrong), and a rather enthusiastic, mobility buggy seated audience member, certainly not going to end up on stage, despite the offer. It peated out, and as it did, it took a lot of the joy of the show to that point with it. Elsewhere, there is the Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5 moment, which loath to say, was uninspiring, which Jackson most certainly never was, and sadly, more loath to say, rather poorly performed.

However, while the bad is pretty bad at times, the good is truly excellent. David Korins set is one of absolute simplicity, but that is no bad thing, in fact, it is perfect for the show. It also allows Daniel Brodie's projection design to reign supreme, bringing the vibrancy of the era's to the stage. It is at times a visual masterpiece.

Choreography from Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams is precise, echoing the era and the performers well, and not being more than it needs to be, until perhaps where free reign is allowed in the excellent War number. Director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps the whole show slick and perfectly judged, with no poorly staged moments at all.

All in all, Motown the Musical is an excellent show. It has it's best moments behind it by the interval, but there is more than enough good to just about get you through the, thankfully shorter, second act. Perhaps in a way, this shows echos the success and gradual decline of Motown really rather well as a result.

A five-star first act that derails badly at times in its inferior second.

Performance reviewed: Tuesday 23rd July 2019 at Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes.
Motown the Musical runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 27th July 2019 before continuing its tour.
Further details about Milton Keynes Theatre can be found at http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/milton-keynes-theatre/

Photos: Tristram Kenton

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