Hoopla

Actor finding his soulful groove channeling Marvin Gaye in 'Motown The Musical,' coming to Hancher

JOAN MARCUS

Matt Manuel stars as Marvin Gaye, backed by The Supremes, in “Motown The Musical,” coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City from March 1 to 4. Manuel grew up in a Detroit household full of Christian music, so his crash course in pop sounds came when he was the lone male vocalist in the Simone Vitale Band. He also acquired the smooth moves that slid into his Broadway touring groove.
JOAN MARCUS Matt Manuel stars as Marvin Gaye, backed by The Supremes, in “Motown The Musical,” coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City from March 1 to 4. Manuel grew up in a Detroit household full of Christian music, so his crash course in pop sounds came when he was the lone male vocalist in the Simone Vitale Band. He also acquired the smooth moves that slid into his Broadway touring groove.
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Matt Manuel grew up around the corner from Hitsville, Motown’s first headquarters in Detroit, but he was raised on gospel, not the new sound sensation.

He wasn’t even born until eight years after Marvin Gaye’s death in 1984. But every night, Manuel slips into the soul of Gaye’s shoes for the national tour of “Motown The Musical,” coming to Hancher Auditorium from March 1 to 4.

He and everyone else cast as heavy-hitters Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five are interpreting, not impersonating the luminaries under the spotlights.

“The first thing that we were told, is we don’t want you to become them, we want you to channel them,” Manuel, 25, said by phone from a recent tour stop in Edmonton in western Canada. “Like, what does Marvin Gaye mean to me? When I see him, how would he approach this or do this? It’s different from actually just trying to impersonate him.

“My goal was, and still is, to put myself into his shoes and understand why he would do the things he does, how he would do the things he says. As far as my voice, there are certain things I can do here and there, but I will never sound like Marvin Gaye.

“The goal is to do justice to him, not necessarily to sound like him verbatim or to do everything like him verbatim,” Manuel said.

“I have had people say, ‘You sound just like him’ or ‘You look just to him’ or ‘When you speak, you sound like him.’ I attribute that more to the work that I did leading up to how he thinks, why he does the things he does, why he would walk the way that he walked — all of the little details, everything that you can get, and that’s how you become the character.”

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The show is more than just a jukebox musical showcasing hits from “ABC,” “Dancing in the Street” and “I Hear a Symphony” to “My Girl, “Super Freak,” “War” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”

“It has an awesome story line,” Manuel said. Written by Gordy, the show chronicles his rise to glory, along with the musicians he molded and marched to the top of the charts.

“It’s amazing that someone created all of this music. These are all songs that we know and love,’ Manuel said, “but to also have a story line to a musical using the songs that you wrote that changed the entire world.

“It is the story of Berry Gordy, of how he created crossover music. And how he was inspired by Joe Louis and a boxing match; what he wanted to be as a child; and how growing up, what that turned into. All these people whose music that we have — Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, The Contours — all these people came from this one man’s dream,” Manuel said.

“When you sit down and you think about that, I have a job because this man decided to follow his dreams. We’re all employed — we’re all in this beautiful national tour because this man followed his dreams when he was in his 30s, and now the world has been forever changed.”

Gaye changes during the course of the show, as well, and taught Manuel a thing or two about the man whose name he knew, but didn’t grow up hearing in his home. “It’s like knowing someone’s name, but not knowing who they are,” he said.

“(Gaye) is such an interesting person. You can look at his life in this show and it’s like he’s a different Marvin every time. He gives you something different every time,” Manuel said.

“When he was younger, he gave you what he had — what he thought he wanted to give people. He wanted to be this crooner, and he wanted to give this kind of music to people. As he got older and saw what was going on, every lyric I can relate to today. Everybody can relate to that. ... He wrote truth. He molded truth into a lyric and rhythmic form and we all received it. To this day, it’s one of his biggest contributions.

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“Motown in general — the way they wrote music, they don’t do that anymore. You can feel the honesty to this day. This is not one of Marvin’s songs, but Smokey Robinson had a song called ‘You’ve Really got a Hold on Me.’ Everybody who’s ever been in love will know what that feels like.

“It’s just the honesty and the truth and the lyrics that proves (Gaye will) never be forgotten.”

So put on your boogie shoes if you’re going to the show. Manuel guarantees you’ll be laughing, singing and dancing in your Hancher seats. And get ready for an evening full of bonding moments.

“One of my favorite moments in the show is when Diana (Ross actress) is singing ‘Reach Out and Touch,’ and she asks everybody to join hands. The thought that for some people, it may be the first time they’re holding hands with someone of another color or another background — someone completely different from them — that they’re going to join hands and sing together. It’s such a moment of unity.

“You’re going to experience a lot when you’re in the audience, and you’ll leave feeling better than how you came.”

GET OUT!

WHAT: “Motown The Musical”

WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

WHEN: March 1 to 4; 7:30 p.m. Thursday (3/1) and Friday (3/2), 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (3/3), 1 p.m. Sunday (3/4); American Sign Language interpreter Sunday (3/4)

TICKETS: $50 to $90; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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