‘Motown: the Musical’
Through Jan. 3
1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Playing an icon can be tricky. And if you get it wrong, people are going to tell you.
“You do a lot of work for any part, but when you’re cast as a famous person, particularly a living famous person, you can’t just make it all up,” says out actor Jesse Nager who plays musical legend Smokey Robinson in the national tour of “Motown: the Musical” now at the National Theatre. “You want to be like them without falling into the caricature trap. It’s important to come across as real as you can.”
Because there’s so much available video, Nager initially spent a lot of time watching and listening.
“Smokey’s voice and style is distinctive, and fortunately my voice sits high so I haven’t had to do a ton of manipulation,” says Nager, 34. “Also, I was able to talk with people who know him, friends and family. And I’ve seen him a lot. He calls me, ‘little Smokey.’”
“Motown” premiered on Broadway in the spring of 2013. Crammed with 50 hits mostly performed concert style, the show received mixed reviews but proved a box office smash. The action begins and ends in 1983 — Motown’s 25th anniversary — and travels back in time to the label’s humble Detroit beginnings and follows how founder Berry Gordy helped start the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and more.
For the last year Nager has toured as Robinson (after playing one of the Temptations in the original Broadway cast), and while it’s been a long run, keeping it fresh hasn’t proved a challenge, he says.
“What’s interesting about this show is how the audience gets me there every night. I walk on stage, they say Smokey Robinson and the audience goes nuts. I don’t have to dig that deep. Audience energy does a lot of that work for me.”
In the show Robinson is introduced as a young singer/songwriter. With his group the Miracles, he achieves stardom singing hits like “Shop Around” and “The Tears of a Clown.” But Nager’s favorite Robinson song from the show is “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” mostly because it’s sung as part of a sequence in which Motown artists are touring the American south and performing for integrated audiences, a powerful indication of the label’s crossover appeal and changing times.
Born in Boston, Nager lived in suburban Somerville, Mass., until he was 10 when he moved with his family to New York City. He attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the school made famous in the 1980s film “Fame.” After graduating from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance in 2003, his first professional job in New York was in “Fame on 42nd Street,” a stage adaptation of the movie.
“I’d been training for so long, I was certain I’d work,” says Nager who is biracial (his father is African-American and his mother is white). “I did and it happened fast.”
Many jobs followed including Broadway musicals “Mamma Mia,” “Mary Poppins,” “Good Vibrations,” “Scandalous” and “Motown” as well as national tours of “Xanadu” and now “Motown.” He played the fairy Cobweb in Tina Landau’s 2006 production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. He’s also performed with Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, Jason Mraz, Debbie Gibson and Patti LaBelle. There are stories, but he’s saving those for the memoir, Nager says jokingly.