Motown The Musical
(Broadway Across Canada presentation)
February 13 to 18, 2018
Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium


 Review by GRAHAM HICKS,

Yes, Motown the Musical at Edmonton’s Jubilee Auditorium February 13 to 18, is a song ‘n’ dance extravaganza featuring some 30 highly talented triple-threat (singing, dancing, acting) actors doing the songs and the great dance moves of the legendary Motown Record Company’s artists, from The Four Tops through Diana Ross through Stevie Wonder.

But the show is far more interesting, much deeper and more complex than what would be expected.

It’s a fascinating deep dive into American culture, race relations, politics and the entertainment business of the 1950s to 1980s. It revolves around one businessman/artist who single-handedly bought “coloured music” into the mainstream of American pop music.

Berry Gordy is a mass of walking contradictions, which makes the story ever so interesting.

A brilliant businessman as well as songwriter, he builds Motown Records in Detroit from nothing into the most successful independent recording and publishing company in North America, into the largest Afro-American owned company of his time, from the late ‘50s to the mid ‘80s.

But his is an autocratic leadership style.  Motown artists must follow rigid rules laid down by Gordy.  He sees Motown as a family, yet he is a dominating father – it’s his way or the highway.

Gordy was not particularly active in the civil rights movement -  his goal was to bring “coloured” music firmly into mainstream American pop music for all Americans, regardless of creed or colour.  But because of his prominence, and the activism of several Motown stars (like Marvin Gaye), he was a reluctant participant.

His personal life is equally complex, the line between personal and professional relationships with his recording artists forever being re-drawn.  A five-year love affair with Diana Ross, within a life-long professional relationship, amply illustrates the contradictions.

On top of the individual is a case study in the entertainment business – how even a company as successful as the independent Motown Records ends up not being able to compete against the arrival on the music scene of huge corporate entertainment companies. 

Gordy looks on with anger and betrayal as his “children” reluctantly leave Motown Records for other labels -  at four or five times more than Gordy could afford to pay. It doesn’t help that Gordy gets caught up in the role of entertainment mogul, spending far more money on his personal lifestyle and on ambitious but less-than-successful entertainment projects unsustainable by Motown’s dwindling cash flow.

So Motown the Musical becomes multi-layered – on the superficial level, a tribute to Motown by excellent impersonators.  Deeper down an exploration of ambition, success against all odds and the problems bought on by success.  Even deeper, a look at love (Diana Ross and Gordy) intertwined with professional demands.

The unexpected icing on the cake:  Motown The Musical, for all its honesty, warts and wrinkles, is autobiographical!  Gordy himself conceived and produced the Broadway musical, and wrote the script.

The show brilliantly recreates a 1983 seminal moment in Gordy’s life as its starting point.

A huge 25th anniversary Motown party/show is to be held in Los Angeles, as much a tribute to Gordy as to the company.  All the stars that left Motown for greener pastures are in attendance.  For all his domineering, Gordy is much loved by his former artists – including Ross, who left Motown for a $20 million plus contract with RCA Records that Motown could not match.

Gordy does not want to attend.  He’s too full of resentment and anger at all his former friends who, he feels, betrayed him. He sits at home and stews ….  And then the story reverts back to his climb from obscurity to stardom.

And at the end of the show, the plot shifts back to the 25th anniversary party showdown.  No spoiling the outcome here, but it’s a fitting resolution to one terrific story line.

If you’re both a fan of the Motown era – and who isn’t? -  and a fan of intelligent, multi-layered musical theatre, this is a show worth taking in.