THURSDAY, March 17 — Playing one of the music industry’s all-time great singers is a tall order, even more so when that singer is in the room. But Jesse Nager, who plays Smokey Robinson in the touring production of “Motown the Musical,” is up to the challenge. He’s even earned a nickname from Robinson. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Nager, 34, was an original member of the “Motown the Musical” Broadway cast, playing a member of the Temptations. The young actor was raised in New York, but he does have a Michigan connection: He attended the University of Michigan for musical theater. He’s also founder and artistic director of the Broadway Boys, a touring vocal group. City Pulse caught up with Nager as “Motown the Musical” was gearing up its run of shows at the Wharton Center this week.
What is it like playing Smokey Robinson?
I started the show in New York, in the Broadway company. I was in the Temptations. So I had the opportunity to meet with him and talk with him before I was playing him. So it was a nice introduction without the added pressure.
When I was offered the role, I did a lot of research online and read books and had conversations. The good thing about Smokey is that not only is he an amazing person, but everyone involved — his friends, his family — they’re all incredible as well, and I got to talk to them. I got to come up with things to do on stage based on what those people told me. So I felt pretty confident because I knew I had his blessing and his family’s blessing.
Has Robinson seen you perform in this role?
He has, several times. He thinks it’s great. He calls me “Little Smokey.”
How is this role different from your Broadway run as a member of the Temptations?
In the Temptations, it was much more about singing and dancing. And when I was in that track, I also played a bunch of other people. With Smokey, I just do Smokey all night, so I really get to develop his character throughout the evening, as opposed to going back and forth between different people.
What do you like to do for fun while you’re out on tour?
I love to explore each city. I do a lot of research before I get to each city and find the landmarks and where the food is and that kind of stuff. It’s harder when you’re only there for a short amount of time, when you’re doing one-weekers, but I’ve got to get out and explore the city.
What is Broadway Boys?
It’s all different guys from different Broadway shows, and we basically take traditional musical theater tunes and we rearrange them with pop and funk and gospel to create a new, contemporary musical theater sound. We perform in groups of six. It depends on who is available. There’s about 30 guys on the roster, and at any given time most of them are employed, so you just see who’s available and put a group together and figure it out.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musical theater actors?
It takes a lot of work. There are ways to get famous quickly — there’s YouTube and “American Idol”-type shows — but if you want a lasting, interesting career, you have to do the work. You have to put in the time doing your research and taking classes and listening to all kinds of music and reading Playbill.com every day and getting to know everything about the business. Because every piece of information will be useful at some point in your career.
“Motown the Musical”
7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17; 8 p.m. Friday, March 18; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 20
Tickets start at $38
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com