Boston is about to start feeling a little more like Motown, as “Motown the Musical” is set to open this week at the Boston Opera House. Despite its Detroit roots, the show will have at least one performer bringing a little bit of Boston to the show: Jesse Nager, who plays singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson and spent the first ten years of his life living in the area, including five years in Somerville.
“I know that my mother is already planning big groups,” Nager says with a laugh. While this is his first time coming with the show to Boston, he’s been working on it for years, and says he loves the opportunity to bring Smokey to life. He calls Smokey and Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder and the star of the show, “the yin and the yang.”
“Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy are best friends. They were years and years ago, they are still to this day,” says Nager. “He’s one of the few people in Mr. Gordy’s world that can really always speak to him honestly.”
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Nager has met Robinson a few times, and calls him “the nicest man I have ever met in my entire life. He is so sweet and charming.”
Meeting the person you’re playing onstage might be a little intimidating, but Nager says he’s lucky enough to have a similar vocal register to Robinson, which helps with the portrayal, which he just tries to keep honest. “There’s always a responsibility when you’re playing a real character that whatever choices you make onstage dramatically have to be based in reality and what that person would really do.”
Nager points to Robinson’s capable songwriting as one of the big reasons he’s been successful for so long. “What Smokey is so good at is matching lyrics to melody. He’s so good at combining the two so you never feel like the song has nothing to do with what the lyrics are talking about or the lyrics don’t really reflect the mood of the song.”
Many of the various Motown stars have come to see the show and talk to the cast, which Nager says has been pretty enjoyable. “One of the funniest moments I remember is when I met Dennis Edwards and he was like, ‘Y’all were great onstage. Don’t forget to pay your taxes! Because we ran into some problems.’” Seems like pretty sound advice.