It’s good to be Sheldon Roden right now.
The 24-year-old Westcoast Black Theater Troupe singer feels like he’s watching his dreams come to fruition.
After enjoying the runaway success of last season’s “Motown ’60s Revue,” Roden, now in his third season with the company, is headlining this month’s “Marvin Gaye, The Prince of Soul: The Man and His Music.”
The musical includes a mix of Gaye’s biggest hits strung together by monologues delivered by the people who knew Gaye best: his brother, his mother, his father and two wives.
It’s an original work, penned by WBTT Artistic Director Nate Jacobs specifically for Roden, who blew Jacobs away last year when he not only nailed Gaye’s music in “Motown” but also captured the thoughtful peace-loving essence of the late singer.
“That’s when I knew I had a real R&B singer,” Jacobs says. “He had a gift for delivering Marvin Gaye’s stuff. I saw how he sold it, and I was thinking one day, ‘Ya know, Sheldon kind of looks like Marvin Gaye. He’s got a lot of the same nuances and that natural suave laid-back persona.’ I thought it would be really cool to do a piece around him.”
It’s a huge role for Roden, a 2004 Booker High School graduate, who grew up in Newtown singing in a tiny church choir; his grandmother served as the pastor.
In a way, he feels as if he and Gaye are brothers from another mother — and another generation.
“Marvin and I came up the same way,” Roden says. “Other than the way his father treated him, a lot of the particulars of our lives are identical. We’re from two different lifetimes, but we share so much that I feel so in tune with him when I sing. It’s not that I’m up there acting out someone else’s life. What he went through, I went through.”
Roden jokes that he’s become a kind of Gaye scholar.
In 2008, when Jacobs first handed him the music for “Motown,” the singer poured himself into researching Gaye, whom he knew little about at the time.
He took the music with him on vacation to Atlanta, in addition to a Gaye biography and of course, his computer, on which he spent countless hours reading about Gaye on the Internet.
“The songs were no longer songs to me,” Roden says. “They were feelings and stories.”
And, like his newfound alter ego, Roden has found himself experiencing the thrill of fame, albeit on a much smaller level — for now.
Roden, who works full time at a Sarasota Verizon store, says people have begun to recognize him from his WBTT performances.
“I’m feeling the pressure,” Roden says. “I told Nate the weight of the world is on my shoulders. It would be different if this was a character created by the director, but when you bring about a man’s life that everyone knows and loves, you have to do him justice. To step into Marvin Gaye’s shoes for two hours is, to me, a great honor.”
SHELDON RODEN’S TOP-THREE MARVIN GAYE SONGS
‘What’s Going On?’
“When you’re really in tune to the lyrics, it can bring tears to your eyes.”
‘Let’s Get It On’
“He wrote it for his second wife, Janice. He didn’t know how to tell her how he felt about her, so he wrote it into his music.”
‘Inner City Blues’
“It talks about the environment and the way people are treating each other. It mirrors the way I feel. I’m one of those people who likes people to get along all the time. The song touched me tremendously.”
IF YOU GO
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s “Marvin Gaye, The Prince of Soul: The Man and His Music” runs now through Feb. 20 at the new WBTT theater, 1012 N. Orange Ave., behind the BINZ building. For more information, call 366-1505 or visit http://wbttroupe.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]