Jesse Nager has been in “Motown: The Musical” since it opened on Broadway in 2013. Yet he never tires of it.
That’s because audiences never fail to respond to the exuberant show – it opens Tuesday in Charlotte – and the songs they know by heart.
Nager, who plays Smokey Robinson, said, “As soon as I walk on stage with my Jheri curl and little mustache, the audience knows I’m Smokey, and they love him.” He’s become so adept at the portrayal that Robinson himself calls Nager “Little Smokey.”
“When I first met Smokey, I wasn’t playing him yet,” Nager said. “So I was much less nervous than I might have been.” (Nager originally played Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations.)
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He’s also gotten to know legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy. “Motown: The Musical” is based on Gordy’s memoir, “To Be Loved,” which recounts his rise from Detroit dropout to music mogul.
The story begins with the 1983 Motown 25th-anniversary special and then flashes back to the glory days of the label – and Gordy’s discovery of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and on and on.
At 34, he’s too young to have known The Supremes and The Jackson 5 in their heyday, but he said, “In a way, we’ve all grown up with Motown. The music is everywhere.”
And so it is with “Motown: The Musical.” Although some critics use the term “jukebox musical” derisively, Gordy’s musical is unabashedly, joyfully just that. He produced too many hits for one musical, but that didn’t stop him from including 66 songs – snippets, in some cases – in the show.
It’s not quite A to Z, but it’s A (The Jackson 5’s “A, B, C”) to Y (Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”).
Gordy is a master at producing music, but he needed someone who knew theater to direct his life story. He found that person in Charles Randolph-Wright, the Duke-educated native of York, S.C., who’s a celebrated producer, director, screenwriter and playwright.
“Charles is great at interpreting what Mr. Gordy wants,” Nager said. “Mr. Gordy knows how to shape concerts, but Charles can figure out a way to translate his vision into a series of theatrical moments.”
Randolph-Wright is constantly tinkering. “Every show evolves over time,” Nager said. “But Charles makes sure the story resonates for the audience in whatever city we’re in. We were just in Memphis, where Dr. King was shot, and Charles told us to lean into that – to make that part of the story really clear and authentic.”
The company was in St. Louis shortly after a grand jury declined to indict the white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown. Randolph-Wright reminded the cast that Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” was, in part, about police brutality. (“Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.”)
In spite of covering the weighty social issues of the 1950s and ’60s (and Gordy’s busy love life and occasional legal woes), the musical is mostly a toe-tapping good time. “It’s for everyone – of every race and age,” Nager said. Including kids.
In fact, the performer who gets the biggest applause is the kid who plays the young Michael Jackson. Nager quipped, “The adult cast members complain, ‘He gets all the love.’”
There’s plenty of love to go around in a musical brimming with hummable hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” And “My Girl,” “My Guy,” “I Can’t Get Next to You” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch).”
To paraphrase the old Smokey Robinson & The Miracles song, Motown’s really got a hold on us. It has since Gordy founded the label in 1959. It still does.
I’ll be there
“Motown: The Musical” plays the Belk Theater Aug. 25-Sept. 6. Tickets, which are selling fast, cost $20-$134.50 at carolinatix.org and 704-372-1000.