When native San Franciscan Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. attended shows at the Orpheum Theatre, there was something about members of those casts that he discovered later.
Jackson, Jr. remembers fondly attending “Wicked,” “The Lion King,” and “The Color Purple” at the venerable theatre on Market Street. What he did not realize was that some of those cast members from each of those three shows would be sharing the stage with him in the newest production at the Orpheum.
“Motown: the Musical,” makes its way to The City on Friday, Aug. 15th for a six-week run. The show, which earned four Tony Award nominations and is still running in New York after an April 2013 Broadway debut, is a retrospective of the career of Berry Gordy, Jr., the music mogul who changed the world in 1960 with iconic, legendary groups such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Jackson Five. Based on his autobiography, “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown,” published in 1994, the musical features more than 60 songs that are iconic slices of Americana, representing the dawn of a new musical era.
While Jackson, Jr., 23, was nowhere near Motown during its heyday, he definitely used the opportunity as an actor and singer to make the show his personal classroom.
“It’s so powerful to get to tell this story which is a history basically, and I’ve learned so much as a part of this process,” he said.
Jackson, Jr., in his very brief professional career, has landed some huge shows after graduating with a bachelor of fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. He had a four-month run with “Book of Mormon” on Broadway and then landed the role in Motown, where he plays Temptations front man David Ruffin and Michael Jackson’s big brother Jermaine.
Jackson, Jr. has an opportunity of a lifetime, singing “My Girl.” It’s a thrill for him, especially hearing people’s stories of what that song has meant to them, in addition to the millions who have played the tune at weddings and significant milestone moments. To that end, Jackson, Jr., like his fellow cast mates, goes to great pains to make sure what is heard does not compromise those memories.
“For our show, it’s holding true to the way the artists originally sang those songs,” said Jackson, Jr. “I can’t stray from the root of the song, how dare we take that away.”
The essence of the original Motown artists was not just in the music, but also in the showmanship. Whether it was the sharp and regal choreography of the Supremes and Temptations, or the mesmerizing youthful energy of the Jackson 5, grasping the essence of the artists is critical for the success of the show.
However, it was not only Motown artists who Jackson Jr. studied in prepping for his role.
Sam Cooke, often referred to as the King of Soul and a gargantuan talent who died at 33, was someone Jackson, Jr. considers a huge influence.
“He is one of my favorite singers,” said Jackson, Jr. “I’ve modeled nuances after him in songs like ‘You Send Me.’
“Something about those singers was so special, they happen to be so raw, natural and so suave in their personalities. I’ve listened so much, and realized Sam Cooke has really taught me how to sing.”
Performing “Motown: the Musical” in Jackson, Jr.’s hometown is a huge thrill. For starters, a few folks who didn’t get to see him perform in “Mormon” in New York City get to go a few blocks away and see him at home.
“My parents are so thrilled, they couldn’t afford to come to New York, and I have invited so much extended family. It’s amazing.”
And who knows – maybe a member of the audience will be sharing the Orpheum stage with Jackson, Jr. someday.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents “Motown: The Musical”
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street (at 8th) San Francisco, CA 94102.
Aug. 15th – Sept. 28th
Tickets range from $65 to $210
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.