Sometimes, in a show highlighting the songs of a composer or performer, I’ve found myself wanting more of the story behind the music and the individual. With Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s current production, Marvin Gaye: The Man and His Music, I found myself in the rare situation of wanting less story—at any rate, fewer details and dates, but more drama.
There’s plenty of drama to be had in Gaye’s story, which begins with him as an ambitious young man growing up in the slums of Washington, D.C., with a passion for music and a harsh disciplinarian father and eventually includes drug use, lots of Motown hits and an untimely end. But writer-director Nate Jacobs here falls into the all too familiar trap of telling us that story, through narrated blocks of exposition, rather than showing us. It’s a problem the cast can’t quite surmount, although there are certainly welcome musical interludes amid all the recitals of “and then, in 1970,” etc.
Sheldon Roden as WBTT's Marvin Gaye.
That cast, with the exception of Sheldon Roden as Marvin and Emmanuel Avraham as his brother Frankie (who narrates most of the action), mostly does double duty portraying various characters in Marvin’s climb to fame. Nisi Pierre is both Marvin’s mother (given little to do) and his beloved (in a brotherly fashion) duet partner, Tammi Terrell (Pierre does a nice job in this role). Mikeyy Mendez makes an impression as Harvey Fuqua, a singer/record producer crucial in Marvin’s early career. And Jasmine McAllister does what she can with the brief appearance in Act II of Marvin’s second wife, Janice. (His first, Anna Gordy, isn’t really developed much here, and neither, surprisingly, is Motown mogul Berry Gordy.)
Avraham is likeable as Frankie, whose time in Vietnam eventually helps to inspire some of Marvin’s later, more socially conscious music. And Roden, while he occasionally strains vocally, has a presence much like that of the smooth, sexy Marvin onstage. (Although the real-life Gaye apparently never conquered a fear of performing, you’d never know that from watching old clips of him.)
The best moments of the show, naturally, are when Marvin performs, alone or with others, some of his biggest hits, like Pride and Joy, Can I Get a Witness, Ain’t No Mountain, Let’s Get It On, etc. It’s only towards the end of the show that Jacobs really makes use of those songs to relate to Gaye’s personal life, as with the pleading tones of I Want You when he’s trying to hold onto a relationship with a loved one. It might help if other songs were similarly able to be woven into the storyline. But right now, this production mainly serves as a vehicle to return to some beloved musical memories.
Marvin Gaye: The Man and His Music continues through Feb. 27; for tickets, call 366-1505 or go to wbttroupe.org.