The Playhouse, Edinburgh
When Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvyn Gaye and Stevie Wonder lead a large ensemble paying homage to the man who gave them their musical careers, the occasion is carried by some of the greatest pop songs ever made, just as the previous two hours have been. Coming at the end of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy’s adaptation of his autobiography, the moment is given extra pathos by the film behind the actors showing archive footage of the event being replicated. It’s a lovely touch in Charles Randolph-Wright’s production, first seen on Broadway in 2013 and now embarking on its first UK tour following a West End run.
The show is framed by Edward Baruwa as a magnificently grouchy Gordy, pacing his office like a wounded bear as preparations for the star-studded 25th anniversary of Motown go on without him. Inbetween comes a lavish and slickly choreographed potted history of the independent record label which changed the face of pop music and subverted the mainstream. This goes beyond Gordy’s personal highs and lows to take in snapshots of the state of black America and the wider world Motown changed.
In this way we see things move from the package tours forced to play racially segregated venues in America’s deep south where the KKK held sway unchecked. The rise of the civil rights movement and black power gives Motown a different voice before corporate culture moves in and buys everybody off.
Peppered throughout with a conveyor belt of slickly choreographed routines to some of Motown’s greatest hits, this makes for a beautifully realised construction that manages to be a crowd-pleaser while getting to the nitty-gritty that drove the songs. It’s also a love letter to Diana Ross, the hungry teenage diva who grew up to be one of the greatest singers on the planet, brought to starry life here by Karis Anderson in a timely reminder of where great pop music comes from.
The Herald, November 22nd 2018