Smokey’s really got a hold on him
Jesse Nager may have spent his childhood in Somerville and attended the vaunted “Fame” high school in New York, but for the past few years he’s been living in “Motown.”
The musical that is.
Nager, 33, opened the show on Broadway in 2013 in the role of Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations, among others. In November, he joined the touring production, currently ensconced at the Opera House through Feb. 15, in the even more prominent role of Smokey Robinson, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s best friend and the singer who wrote and performed some of the record label’s biggest hits.
He has also appeared in the Broadway productions of “Mary Poppins” and “Scandalous” and the national tour of “Xanadu,” and he performs with the group the Broadway Boys. We chatted with the actor-singer-dancer recently by phone from a stop on the “Motown” tour before it reached Boston.
Q. So it sounds like you were here long enough to get the flavor of Boston but not retain the accent.
A. Exactly. (Laughs.) Although my mother definitely has it.
Q. Was it a culture shock moving from Somerville to Manhattan?
A. It was. Some good and some bad. One of the most interesting things to me was, when I was in Somerville I was always just one of the guys, nothing was ever an issue. But when I went to New York, especially at the LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts, I was expected to be “black” and sing “black” and act “black,” and there was much more segregation in the city than there was in Somerville, which felt interesting to me.
Q. So when you got into a more urban environment, people were less accepting of you as you were?
A. Exactly. I grew up Jewish and went to temple — half of my family is Caucasian, obviously — and there were certain things I was expected to do [in New York]. [For instance] I had never listened to gospel music. As jarring as that [culture shock] was, I’m also grateful for it because it forced me to study gospel. I don’t think I would’ve gotten half the jobs that I’ve received if I hadn’t done that.
Q. When Smokey Robinson came to see the show, did you get a chance to meet him?
A. I have met him a couple of times, actually, but when I met him I wasn’t playing him yet. So I’m sure when I see him now it’s going to be a little bit different.
Q. Were you a fan before you got the role?
A. It’s funny, it wasn’t like I keyed into loving Smokey Robinson, but all of his songs I knew and loved, I just don’t think I knew they were all him. I was not familiar with how many songs he’d written. A lot of times when you hear music you don’t necessarily know that it’s him because he’s done so many things.
Q. Many of the cast members play multiple people in the show, as you did on Broadway. Is it a relief of sorts just to stay in one character?
A. You definitely get to create more of a journey for yourself as it goes on. Since you’re just playing one person, you don’t have to pop into somebody else’s story line, so you get to create your own arc that way. I’m lucky that I’ve known and liked all the people who’ve played Berry Gordy, so playing that person’s best friend has never been hard for me. And it’s fun. And one of the things that I love is that Smokey is really the only person in the world that, when Mr. Gordy goes off and gets himself worked up, can cut through and just say, “Let’s get down to what this is really about.” He’s the only one who can bring him back to earth.
Q. Is there a key to getting into the Smokey persona?
A. Well, listen, as soon as I put that Jheri curl on my head, everything changes. (Laughs.) But seriously, as soon as they put the costumes on and these shoes that have higher heels, you sort of physically become someone else just by the way you have to hold yourself in the clothes and turn your head in the hair. At that point I don’t have to do very much. And it’s interesting, too, no matter who you play, as soon as you enter the stage and the audience recognizes you, you get applause, right? So that even makes me feel like a star, like Smokey felt.
As much as we like to think the audience is going crazy for us, a lot of what they’re going crazy for is the memory of these people that we play. And we’ve come to terms with that, and we know this is a memory play for people, and that’s part of what the fun is.