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Motown the Musical celebrated its second year at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in early March, but this stage spectacular about the history of Motown Records literally transcends time. Packed with more than 50 of the most beautiful songs ever written, it boasts a soundtrack that will never get old or lose its strength.
Along with marking a major anniversary, Motown the Musical also welcomed four new cast members. Jay Perry has taken the helm as founder Berry Gordy, Natalie Kassanga plays Diana Ross, and Carl Spencer appears as Marvin Gaye (shown below, respectively). Plus, 11-year-old Cruz Lee-Ojo now shares the roles of young Gordy, young Stevie Wonder and young Michael Jackson.
Motown the Musical chronicles the career of Gordy, one of the most important men in American music. The plot is bookended by an event held in Los Angeles in 1983 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the record label. While deciding whether or not he’ll attend that gathering, we see Gordy flash back through the ups and downs that went into building his empire.
With new cast members stepping into the shoes of these icons, we thought we’d highlight our favourite moments for each of their characters on stage. Not only are these the ones that move us emotionally, but they also make us want to get up and dance!
Famous for breaking down barriers while launching the careers of countless legendary artists, Gordy goes on an incredibly tumultuous journey in Motown the Musical.
Near the opening he’s left behind a job at a Detroit auto plant with his sights set on bigger things: starting his own record label. Gordy wants to use an assembly-line approach to creating music’s biggest stars. But before he can start, he’s got to get some moolah.
Gordy hits his family up by breaking into the powerhouse classic – Money (That’s What I Want). It’s so electric it enthralls us and convinces his sister to write him a check for $800. Gordy uses that to fund the studio he later signposts as Hitsville USA.
We also love a song his character delivers near the end of the show. You might not have known this, but Gordy himself was involved in writing the book and a few original compositions for Motown the Musical. One of those is Can I Close the Door (on Love)?. Sitting in an armchair surrounded by framed photos of all the famous musicians he helped discover, Gordy delivers this emotive track with such poignancy that it’s hard not to shed a tear.
A schoolgirl who catches Gordy’s attention with her “big eyes”, Ross goes from aspiring singer in the then “no-hit Supremes” to diva extraordinaire. Our favourite moments of hers capture both ends of this spectrum.
In the first, The Supremes have just broken through as “America’s sweethearts” and are appearing on TV with their latest Motown hit: Stop! In the Name of Love.
Donning demure dresses, we hear them sing the corny lyrics that are so catchy they’ll stick with you for days to come. And don’t even get us started about that brilliant “stop” hand gesture!
Much later, Ross thrills us again with her solo debut appearance in Las Vegas at the Frontier Hotel & Casino. Her costume wonderfully captures her transformation. Ross is super glam in a sparkling gown with a sultry slit as she belts out Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand). Surrounded by stage smoke, she tells us to grab our neighbours’ hands – and before we know it, everyone is swaying slowly to her soaring vocals. This song is so magnificent it’ll give you goosebumps.
From the instant you hear “say yeah yeah yeah”, it’s clear Gaye is a fellow with an effortless smoothness on stage. We can’t think of another singer with such a seductive voice.
One highlight is undoubtedly Gaye’s performance of I Heard It Through the Grapevine. It comes at a point when the artists are hearing all sorts of gossip, including a rumour about Motown Records moving to LA. With his suave mannerisms and slow dance moves, he soon has the audience clapping along and losing themselves in the song’s soulful beats.
As Motown the Musical continues, Gaye becomes less concerned about being a pop star and more focused on the issues of the time – war, the environment and human rights. After fighting with Gordy to release a “protest album”, he performs Mercy, Mercy Me. It’s stirring to listen to Gaye recite the lyrics like poetry, and the message is just as relevant today as it was way back then.
Young Michael Jackson
Although all the “young” roles are scene stealers, we were especially wowed by a little Michael Jackson. Gordy is told “you’ll want them” just before laying eyes upon the Jackson 5, but really it’s the skinny kid in front who oozes talent as he performs I Want You Back.
It’s clear this baby-faced cutie is extraordinarily gifted. Afterward Gordy declares that the boy is “a two-year-old who sings like he’s been living for 30 years”.
Don’t miss seeing the new cast members in these and many, many more unforgettable moments.
Motown the Musical is currently playing at Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End. Tickets are available now at Ticketmaster.co.uk.