Critically acclaimed Motown The Musical is coming to Oxford this December, taking up residence at the New Theatre from the 17th and running 'til the 4th of January 2020. We were lucky enough to catch a performance of the show in Liverpool after meeting some of the cast, so here we discuss why it’s a perfect show for the festive season.
There'll Be Dancing In The Street...
It may seem a little early to start thinking about Christmas, which is why I was particularly grateful that Motown The Musical is not a ‘Christmas show’ but good for all year round. However, inasmuch as Christmas is, for some, an excuse to get glammed up, catch a show and have a good time, the show is an inspired choice by the New Theatre that will have people dancing in their seats.
Based on the biography of main protagonist Berry Gordy, played by the formidable Edward Baruwa, the show follows, pretty much chronologically, the true history of Motown Records, Gordy’s record label which, through producing hit after hit, launched the careers of almost countless African American icons: Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and many more. This jukebox musical charts the label’s meteoric rise which took in a staggering 110 top 10 hits in the USA between 1961 and 1971; its interplay with racial tension during the Civil Rights movement; its demise as Gordy struggled to keep artists lured away by record deals he couldn’t compete with; and the effects of all this on his personal life and relationships. So there is something to enjoy here whether you are interested in history, social justice, romance, or simply fantastic music.
While the script is peppered with witty lines and emotional moments, the appeal of this show is really all about the music. As Baruwa reflected when I interviewed him before the performance, the show’s basis in music that was (and remains) so popular in itself means that the quality of songs is consistently higher than you’d expect from shows where the music is purpose-written, far less organically. Even my partner, who ‘doesn’t do musicals’, couldn’t help but love it, as we both succumbed to the thrill of hearing some of our favourite songs in new contexts. Segments of over 60 songs are brought to life by a multi-talented ensemble cast, assisted by a combination of note-perfect singing, flawless choreography, a colourful set that filled the stage, and fabulous costumes.
The sprawling cast maintained brilliant form for the duration of the show - all were a credit to the direction of Charles Randolph-Wright, and the award-winning choreography of Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams - although I’d be remiss not to mention some of the standout performances. I was genuinely moved by Brando Velho’s portrayal of the young Michael Jackson. His soaring vocals were matched by a huge stage presence - all the more impressive from a child who can’t have been older than ten performing in front of hundreds of people. I also found Akeem Ellis-Hyman completely absorbing: he didn’t have any spoken lines or solos, yet his singing and dancing were infused with charm. And the Christmas show will be a homecoming for Oxford-born-and-raised Shak Gabbidon-Williams, whose portrait of Marvin Gaye suggests a promising future. Shak mentioned offstage that he wished Oxford were as famous for its performing arts as it is for its universities and I believe he’ll surely be part of making that happen.
The audience were so energized by the anthemic score that the standing ovation was inevitable, as we collectively got to our feet for a boogie to the final number - though I did feel that the producers missed a trick by not having a huge encore medley, as I would have happily stayed in the auditorium for longer. Nevertheless, Motown The Musical promises to be a fabulous excuse to get your glad rags on this Christmas - as long as you’re prepared for the fact that your outfit will almost certainly be less glamorous than the performers’!