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WBTT's 'Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul' keeps audiences coming back

Sheldon Rhoden is playing R&B singer Marvin Gaye for the fourth time in the time-traveling musical at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

Sheldon Rhoden is starring in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's "Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul," for the fourth time.
Sheldon Rhoden is starring in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's "Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul," for the fourth time.
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine
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In a world filled with selfies and social media, it’s easy to assume that everyone wants to be a star.

But that’s the last thing that Sheldon Rhoden wanted to be. Rhoden, who is starring in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s “Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul,” was more focused on business than show business when he was first brought to the attention of WBTT founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs.

Jacobs was impressed when he first saw Rhoden singing at a funeral, but when he approached the young man about performing in a WBTT show in 2008, Rhoden rebuffed him more than once. 

At the time, Rhoden was working for Verizon and wanted to focus on his job. “I went to Booker High but I wasn’t interested in VPA,” Rhoden says, referring to the high school’s highly regarded visual and performing arts program.

Despite Rhoden’s reluctance to take the stage, when Jacobs was rehearsing for a musical revue of ‘70s duets not long after meeting Rhoden, he told his cast that he felt like someone was missing. That someone was Sheldon Rhoden.

One of the singers, Kanessa “Neyce” Pierre, told Jacobs that she had gone to school with Rhoden and that he was a talented singer. She encouraged Jacobs to call Rhoden right then during the rehearsal.

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe founder and artistic director Nate Jacobs created, adapted and is directing "Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul."
Image courtesy of Evan Sigmund

Jacobs called Rhoden on his cellphone and told him that a part singing Marvin Gaye in duets was waiting for him if he wanted it. “He said, ‘Where y’all at?’ and came right over,” Jacobs recalled in a recent interview in his offices at WBTT, where he was joined by Rhoden.

Today, Rhoden owns an automotive repair business authorized by the State of Florida to help cars that have been “totaled” get back on the road. But to Sarasota audiences, he’s a living, breathing incarnation of Marvin Gaye, the R&B singer tragically killed by his father in 1984. 

Back in the day, Hollywood promoted biopics with taglines like “Faye Dunaway IS Joan Crawford” for “Mommie Dearest” or “Lou Diamond Phillips IS Ritchie Valens” for “La Bamba.” If WBTT’s “Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul” were an old school movie, the poster would read “Sheldon Rhoden IS Marvin Gaye.” 

For its 2023-24 season, WBTT brought back Rhoden in “Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul” for the fourth time. It was scheduled for April 17 through May 26 and sold out almost immediately. 

The show has been extended through June 2. There’s even talk of taking it to Broadway, Jacobs confides. “I might have a big story for you pretty soon,” he says.

Whether “Prince of Soul” makes it to the Great White Way or not, Rhoden is a bona fide sensation on Florida’s Gulf Coast. However, as would befit a reluctant star, he’s still unassuming when he’s off stage. 

Jacobs remembers the first time Rhoden took on the Marvin Gaye persona for “Duets of the ‘70s.” “Sheldon wasn’t familiar with the theater and he didn’t understand that audiences don’t always go crazy,” he recalls. “He didn’t realize the effect he was having on women.”

Over the years, Jacobs has worked to develop “Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul” and its star. In the initial production, during the 2010-11 season, there was very little acting required of Rhoden. 

“There was no libretto,” Jacobs says, referring to the spoken part of a musical production. “I didn’t want to scare him off so the story was told by others in the show.”

In the latest version of “Prince of Soul,” Rhoden ages from his teens to his 40s. Gaye was 44 when he was killed by his father, but that horrific scene isn’t shown on the WBTT stage. The production uses archival images projected on a screen as well as sets and costumes to convey points in time and places like Washington, D.C., Detroit, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Now in his early 40s himself, Rhoden has grown up with the show. He is believable in a wig as a youthful Gaye, but he’s at his best playing the singer in his older, more political phase, singing such ballads as “What’s Going On.” 

Originally a response to the Vietnam War, the song got a second life in a 2019 YouTube video directed by Savannah Leaf with protest scenes amid the crisis that left the mostly African-American populace of Flint, Michigan, without clean drinking water.

It almost goes without saying that Rhoden’s rendition of Gaye’s 1982 hit, “Sexual Healing,” from his 17th and final album, “Midnight Love,” sends WBTT audience into a swoon, at least during the performance I saw.

While Rhoden soars as Gaye, the cast of “Prince of Soul” provides the wings that lift him to theatrical heights. Michael Kinsey is so convincing as Marvin Gaye’s abusive father that he is booed by audiences when he takes his bows after the show.

Jai Shanae and Sheldon Rhoden as the Motown duo of Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye in Westcoas tBlack Theatre Troupe's "Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul."
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine

Other standouts are Ariel Blue as the fiercely devoted Mama Gay (the family name didn’t originally have an “e” on the end) and Raleigh Mosely II as the older Frankie Gaye, Marvin’s brother, who acts as the narrator of the musical. 

Props to Terry Spann, who plays the driven but selfish Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, and to LaKesha Lorene, who portrays his demanding sister, Anna Gordy, whom Marvin Gaye married after a relationship that was kept secret because of their age difference.

Spoiler alert: Jai Shanae is so believable as Tammi Terrell, Marvin’s musical partner, that when she collapsed on stage I thought it was the actress who had fallen ill, not the character.

Jacobs is the director of “Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul,” but the show would not be possible without the superb work of music director Matthew McKinnon and choreographer Donald Frison. 

Kudos to wig designer Dominique Freeman and costume designer Darci Collins for capturing the changing hairdos and fashions of three decades — the '60s, '70s and '80s — in the time-traveling musical.

Despite Gaye’s struggles with wives and lovers, the IRS and drugs and the way his life was cut short, one leaves the WBTT theater after seeing “Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul” with a feeling of hope and renewal. We are reminded of how Gaye’s courage in speaking out against war and supporting civil rights made this flawed superstar a hero.

His charisma cannot be erased. No doubt “Sexual Healing” is on many bedside playlists more than four decades after it topped the charts. Gaye’s sexy persona endures, with help from the talents of Jacobs, Rhoden and the rest of the WBTT team.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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