Performing Arts

‘Motown the Musical’ brings American jukebox hits to Bass Hall stage

Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson in Motown the Musical
Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson in Motown the Musical

It is a show where you can be a Temptation one night and Smokey Robinson the next.

Motown the Musical arrives at Bass Hall on Wednesday for a five-day, eight-performance run. The jukebox musical, which will be returning to Broadway in July after having had a 20-month run there in 2013-15, tells the story of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and the incredible stable of artists that made his label such a significant part of the history of popular music in America.

Among the performers in this first national touring production is a young singer who made the transition from being one of the boys in the band to being a headliner.

“I was part of the Broadway show as one of the Temptations,” says New York-based actor Jesse Nager. “And then, a few months after the tour was launched, they asked me to join it as Smokey Robinson.”

Nager says he was not too daunted by the prospect of taking on the role of such a well-known vocalist.

“I was playing Eddie Kendricks in the Temptations, whose voice is fairly similar. So that wasn’t that much of a stretch,” he says. “And I had understudied the [Robinson] role. So I had done it a few times and knew I was capable of it. So there were not tons of things that I had to do vocally.

“But there are certain physical characteristics when he performs and dances [that I had to learn]. And there is a real kindness that he exudes that I try to capture.”

Nager, who, at 34, is too young to have grown up with the music of Motown’s greatest stars, added that he learned a lot about Robinson beyond his performance style.

“I think that with Motown music, everybody knows it better than they think they do. Because it is everywhere — every TV show, every commercial, every movie soundtrack. It’s a part of American culture,” says Nager, who has also performed in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins. “I knew Smokey as a performer and knew all his hits. But what I didn’t know was how massive his songwriting catalog was. He has written thousands of songs for Motown. That blew my mind.”

There is certainly a mind-blowing quantity of music in Motown.

“Our initial draft had 90 songs in it,” says Kevin McCollum, who, along with Gordy and Doug Morris, produced the show. “We started there and cut it down to over 50.”

And what songs they are.

The parade of hits offered includes some of the many songs made immortal by Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Lionel Richie, and the Jackson 5, among others. These tunes are wrapped around the story of the show, which focuses on the building of the Motown empire.

“It began about five or six years ago now. I was called into an hour meeting with Mr. Gordy. That hour meeting became a five-hour dinner,” says McCollum, who recently returned from London, where rehearsals were just beginning for a production of the musical. “He said he wanted to tell the story of some 19- and 20-year-old kids who had nothing but dreams and passion and hope, trying to figure it out in Detroit in those early days.”

In its own way, the musical provides a bit of a history lesson along with its catchy and often danceable music.

“It is a memory trip for audiences that allows them to remember what it was like when they saw the Jackson 5 for the first time or saw Diana Ross emerge as a diva. But the coolest parts of our show are about how the songs were created, what motivated people to write certain songs, and those behind-the-scenes stories that people aren’t usually expecting,” Nager says.

“You really learn about the creation of Motown, but you also get to relive these iconic historical moments. Because we don’t just deal with the music. We deal with a very turbulent time in America’s history where there were tons of racial conflicts, assassinations and other turning points. It is so gratifying to tell this story across the country.”

McCollum’s impressive list of Broadway production credits includes Rent and the current Broadway hit musical comedy Something Rotten!, which is about to begin its first national tour.

Of Motown the Musical, he says, “It is such a rich story of American history and humans at their best, changing the world. I think that is why it is so powerful.”

Nager and McCollum emphasized that the social commentary of a song like Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today) and the more typical romantic message of Stop! In the Name of Love have an equal footing in this popular musical.

“Berry Gordy knew that to break down these walls, he had to make the music so wonderful and irresistible that it could change the world. And that is what happened,” McCollum says. “That is why this music is so iconic.

“But the job is still not done. We still have to keep learning how to love each other and not hate each other. The primary theme of our show is that love conquers all.”

Motown the Musical

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