Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul, now playing at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, is the third staging the company has done of this original show about the late, great, soul singer-songwriter, so obviously there are a whole lotta Marvin Gaye fans out there—old and, perhaps, new.
Creator Nate Jacobs has worked on the project since its emergence, back in 2011, and so has star Sheldon Rhoden, along with music director James E. Dodge II. Improvements have been made along the way, with more cast members helping to handle multiple roles, and slicker and smoother production values. And Rhoden has grown in the role of Gaye; initially a Gaye lookalike who didn’t feel all that comfortable with his acting duties, he’s become more adept at his vocals and his moves.
That said, the piece is still often one that tells more than shows the life of its subject, who was tragically killed by his bitter minister-father (Leon Pitts II) during an altercation in 1984. Gaye’s brother Frankie (Brian L. Boyd) begins the evening with a brief introduction, and throughout the evening other people in Gaye’s orbit—his loving mother (Ariel Blue), often neglected wives Anna Gordy (Alicia Thomas) and Janis Hunter (Emerald Rose Sullivan), and Motown producer Berry Gordy (Ian Fermy)—relate to us more about the steps in Gaye’s career and personal life. That’s sometimes awkward, limiting the amount of time spent on actual dialogue between cast members as well as our emotional involvement.
Tracing that career from his early days in doo-wop through his first recordings for Motown to his more serious protest-type songs, we are treated, though, to the depth and breadth of Gaye’s musical talents. While it’s a little hard to believe how immediately amazed some of Gaye’s listeners are in the early days (partly because of the script and partly because Rhoden doesn’t really come into his vocal own until the more familiar Gaye hits are programmed), we do come to feel the special qualities of the man when before an audience or in the recording booth.
That’s especially true when Rhoden is teamed with duet partners, like Ashley D. Brooks as Kim Weston on “It Takes Two” and "It’s Me,” or Jai Shanae as Tammi Terrell on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” some of the production’s strongest numbers. But Rhoden also shows his mettle with “Can I Get A Witness,” “Ain’t That Peculiar” and, later, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “I Want You,” sometimes solo and sometimes with a small but effective ensemble.
As we see Gaye’s marriages fall apart and his drug use escalate, it’s sometimes difficult for Rhoden to navigate the full range of emotions, especially since he’s rarely offstage to allow for transitions other than a quick costume change. Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul is at its best, not surprisingly, when it simply allows the music of the man (in this case backed by the stalwart Dodge and his band) to flow over the audience like the “Sexual Healing” he appeals for.
Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul continues through Jan. 13. For tickets call 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.