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Exclusive: The Man Behind The Smokey Voice Of Motown, Charl Brown

It was a fairly brisk day in NYC when we met with the  Smokey Robinson in the new Motown: The Musical. His name is Charl Brown and you won’t soon forgot it. He came wrapped in his favorite scarf accompanied with a smile and he should be smiling right? After all he’s creating a once in a lifetime moment in a new Broadway musical. We wanted to know, how did he get to this moment? What was the preparation? We wanted to know his journey. We had to know.

When you ask someone when they first fell in love with theatre and their face doesn’t light up, you know that they probably don’t really love it. However, when they do, you can feel the joy and the love engulf their being and spill over onto you. This was true for Brown. He smiled with excitement just thinking about his introduction to theatre. Being a natural athlete, coming from a family of athletes, he never really thought about theatre all that much. His Dad was a high school football coach, and his 2 other brothers followed as players. Being a baseball player himself, his life could have taken a different turn. Until that fateful day he broke his arm playing an All-Star game and later that year ended up auditioning and being cast in the musical Annie at his new school, San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. From that 8th grade moment Brown set his sights to the stage and began to pursue other opportunities. As a senior in high school he scored his first professional gig in a regional production of Little Shop of Horrors. Continuing to work at other theatres, including San Diego Jr. Theatre and Starlight Theatre in Balboa Park, Brown made it known that this was what he wanted to do and set his sights on college to study his craft.

University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California became the alma mater for Charl Brown. NYU was in his sights but it was too far from Mom and she just wasn’t having it.

“I chose that school because at the time it was in the top 5…and also because my parents would not let me go to NYU. I mean my whole life I wanted to move to New York…ever since I discovered theatre in 8th grade I was like “I want to live in NY. I want to go to NY”. My mom was like “no”. She was really strict. She was like “if you get a car for your 15th birthday or while you’re in high school, you can’t go to New York. Make a deal with me?” So quickly I got a car…right before I turned 17. So I had to stay. Because she was like “if I get you a car it’s because you have to drive to college. You can’t get a car and take it to NY.”…”

“If you can’t live in NY, why noy L.A.?” he says and we laughed because not only is it true but because only a mother’s love can bribe you to hold off on your big leap to the big city at that age. Mother knows best though because college is where Charl met most of his life long friends, a few who now live in NYC as well, and a couple who are Broadway actors as well.

After graduating from USC, Brown was cast in a European tour of HAIR as Hud, which played 8 different countries. The life changing experience showed him what life was really about. It opened his eyes to the real world and not just in the performing arts. So, he stayed for 2 and 1/2 years, coming into his own. He also became closer than close with one of his cast mates when his luggage was lost in the South of France and had to borrow clothes from the only person whose pants he could fit, Adam Lambert (American Idol, Wicked)

After he left the tour:

“So, I was like “okay, I think I’m gonna give New York a try now.” So instead of moving back to L.A. after the tour was over I moved to New York because half the cast was from New York, and so I had friends here and I was like I want my dream of living in New York. I saved up a little bit of money. I think I moved here with like seven hundred dollars or something like that, and I decided to go for it. And it’s worked out so far. So, I’m happy I did that. I’m really happy I did that.”

The first big show Brown booked was the phenomenal production of The Wiz at the La Jolla Playhouse. The show starred David Alan Grier (“In Living Color,” …Forum) as The Wiz, Nikki M. James (All Shook Up, Bernarda Alba) as Dorothy, Titus Burgess (Jersey Boys) as Lion, Rashad Naylor (Hairspray) as Scarecrow, Michael Benjamin Washington (Mamma Mia!, La Cage aux Follies) as Tinman, five-time Jefferson Award-winner E. Faye Butler (Dinah Was) as Evillene. This was a show that everyone just knew was going to Broadway. There were so many things that made it seem as though it was suppose to head in that direction. The show Jersey Boys played at the same theatre the exact time frame a year earlier before it headed to Broadway. The creative team for Jersey Boys, musical director Ron Melrose and the choreographer Sergio Trujillo was the same team for The Wiz, and so when Broadway was a no go, Brown was heartbroken. Then he got a call to be in the Vegas cast of Jersey Boys.

After doing Jersey Boys in Vegas, Charl moved back to New York and he was ready to get work. Shortly after that, he made his Broadway debut in the musical Sister Act. It’s funny how things work out because he didn’t originally get cast in the musical after 3 or 4 auditions. So, what does he do? What performers do. He put it in the past and kept moving forward but a month later he got that call and was cast as an understudy to several different characters.

On His Broadway Debut:

“…it was wonderful. You know, it was such a great marker in my life that I could achieve that original dream of being on Broadway. I now have more dreams which I hope to accomplish as well, but it’s one thing that no can ever take away from me that I will have always gone down on the record of being a Broadway performer.”

As performers, we all dream of being on Broadway and stomping the streets of NYC towards the stage door. Some never make it but those that have the determination, along with the discipline, and the skill, do. Charl Brown is one of those people. The care taken in portraying Smokey Robinson shows. His voice is pure silk and as you leave the theatre you will hear the people talk about its distinction and clarity. His ability to capture Smokey in all of his essence is uncanny. How is this even possible? We found ourselves saying.

“The difficult thing, I think, with playing someone who is living and is iconic and legendary is that there are certain expectations and there is somewhat of a “right” and a “wrong” way to approach it. Like, a certain person speaks a certain way or they look a certain way, or are perceived a certain way. So, I had to study those things. With our project, it runs a fine line of being between –we’re not mimicking them and it’s not impersonation, but we capture the essence and the soul of that person. It sounds like them, it looks like them as well – and be able to bring truth to the character. Like, I said its living, breathing people who are going to come see you for the most part. So, the way I prepared was I watched everything I could find on Smokey Robinson. prepared was I watched everything I could find on Smokey Robinson. I listened to a lot of his music and tried to get the essence of how he sounds and try to imitate the sound —because his vibrato is very distinct. He has a very distinct sound and people are gonna be wanting to hear that. You can’t just sing a Smokey Robinson song….

Charl Brown can SING a Smokey Robinson song and he does it 8 times a week on Broadway at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre next to some friends he’s known for a long time and many he’ll keep for a lifetime. Among those friends is Brandon Victor Dixon who plays Berry Gordy in the hit musical about the legendary record company Motown. It aids to both of their characters that they are and have been friends off the stage. It doesn’t stop there though. Valisia LaKae plays Diana Ross and Brown had nothing but great things to say about her and it was clear that their friendship was just as real on stage and off.

“… the camaraderie, the family that is very important and evident in our show, and I know that is something each of us is bringing. The idea of the family and making sure that the audience goes away understanding how much love there was there.Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson are to this day best friends. So, I think that is actually aiding in our character study because we have a natural friendship already. And who is playing Diana Ross is Valisia LeKae, she’s just so wonderful. She is so talented and so gorgeous, but she’s also sweet and approachable”

It was such an amazing moment to share with Charl Brown his experiences, and listening to him tell his story. He smiled and laughed recounting the days and got in front of the camera for the photoshoot with us and nailed it frame by frame. He was more than pleasure to get to know and we are grateful that he chose to share his talents with the world and his time with us.

See more of Charl Brown —>>> HERE. Follow him on twitter and buy your tickets to see Motown: The Musical

• Location – “The Parlour – Chelsea, NYC”
• Photographer – “Ken Arcara”
• MUA – “Melissa Mhuan Lai”
• Stylist – “Brandon Bernard Jones”

Written By

Drew Shade is a theatre artist and enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity and excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. He is the Founder/Creative Director of Broadway Black, Off-Book Podcast & The Antonyo Awards. “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.” – August Wilson


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