News Column

'I am Diana Ross'

June 9, 2013


By Christopher Blank

Born in the Bluff City, weaned on the music of the Motor City, and now a rising star in New York City, the Broadway actress Valisia LeKae combines the best of three musical worlds in her latest role a star turn that has brought her to one of the most memorable nights of her life.

On Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall in New York, she will be among the five Tony Award nominees for best leading actress in a musical. The ceremony begins at 7 p.m. on CBS.

LeKae earned glowing reviews in the box office smash "Motown the Musical," now running at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. In the jukebox musical based on the autobiography of legendary record producer Berry Gordy, LeKae plays Motown pop princess Diana Ross.

"When I heard about the auditions, I told my agent: 'You need to understand something. I am Diana Ross," LeKae said, laughing. "I know this music backward and forwards."

Valisia LeKae Little grew up in North Memphis studying every note of her mother's record collection.

"She had a habit of getting hooked on one song and playing the same record over and over," said LeKae of her mother, Vanessa Little. "I have the same habit today. I can get obsessed."

She and her mother spent hours strolling the aisles at Pop Tunes, the former record store on Poplar Avenue where a young Elvis Presley used to buy his own vinyl.

Vanessa Little says her normally reticent child wasn't shy when it came to music.

"She didn't talk a lot when she was younger," Little said. "She was small and kind of quiet. But she really took it upon herself to get up and do it. I remember she sang at her own graduation from sixth grade."

Her singing was encouraged by friends and family members, such as her baby sitter and "foster parent" Lucille Stevenson, who got her in front of the congregation at Greater Community Temple Church of God in Christ when she was 6.

Others, like her grandfather, Warren Lewis Sr., fed her a steady diet of classic pop hits of the '50s and '60s.

Lewis is locally famous as a barber who uses fire instead of clippers a method of burning away hair that has frequently made headlines. But that wasn't why the young LeKae loved hanging out in his barbershop on Danny Thomas.

It was the jukebox, full of records by Stevie Wonder, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye.

"I would yank on his coattails, begging him for money to put in the jukebox," LeKae said. "My mom bought all the new records."

While attending East High School in the late 1990s, LeKae began working summers at Libertyland, the former theme park at the Mid- South Fairgrounds.

She started out in the food and beverage department, then became a magician's assistant. When she was finally cast in a Motown-style musical revue, she sang the roles of Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.

She even competed in the Mid-South Fair talent competition, doing a medley from the "TCB" Motown program.

"I wasn't purposely doing Diana Ross," LeKae said. "But my voice fit what we were trying to do."

LeKae didn't win the talent show. Even as she was going off to study psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, she wasn't sure where her singing would take her. She auditioned for the university's women's choral group and was rejected.

"I ended up becoming the mascot," she said. "For the first two years at UT, I was Smokey the hound dog. Yes, I had to wear the whole costume and everything."

She had better luck at Dollywood, performing in musical revues where, again, she became the voice of Motown, singing and dancing her way through the Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love" and Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street."

LeKae scheduled all her classes for two days a week. The other days, she'd drive 45 minutes each way to her shows in Pigeon Forge. Along the highway, she had the thrill of driving by her picture on a billboard.

After college, LeKae decided to give New York a shot. She BeDazzled the letters "NYC" on a baseball cap and moved there with just a few hundred dollars in her pocket. She found work almost immediately singing on a USO tour of bases in New England and a few in Europe.

Her acting skills came later. One of her first musicals was a short regional theater production of "Dreamgirls," a fictionalized telling of the Motown story. She landed the role of Deena, a character often equated with Diana Ross.

For years, LeKae paid her dues as a reliable backbencher on and off Broadway. She was a chorus member in tours of "Mamma Mia!" and the Elvis musical "All Shook Up."

She made her Broadway debut in the 2006 production of "A Threepenny Opera" and had ensemble roles in "110 in the Shade" (2007), "Ragtime" (2009) and "The Book of Mormon" (2011).

When "Motown the Musical" began seeking out actors and actresses who could imitate the real-life artists on the Motown label, LeKae knew she had Diana Ross in the bag.

"I've sung a lot of different styles of music in my life," she said. "Working at theme parks, singing country, Broadway, opera, gospel, you learn how to do all the vocal acrobatics. But it wasn't hard for me to do Diana Ross. Her voice is elegant and beautiful. She is a wonderful storyteller. What makes her sound real is that she is true and honest with the words."

After being cast in the show, LeKae spent time with Gordy in his Los Angeles home, watching video footage of old performances and asking questions about the personalities behind the hits.

"At one point he asked me, 'Who do you think you are, Barbara Walters?'" LeKae said. "He was impressed that I knew so much about Diana Ross already. He's in his 80s now and still has so much energy. He is endless at wanting to continue his legacy. He waited 60 years to bring his story to Broadway, so he really invested a lot of time in us."

In the promotional videos for "Motown" on YouTube, LeKae bears an uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to Ross, whom Billboard magazine once labeled the "Female Entertainer of the Century."

The New York Times theater critic noted that LeKae's "cotton- candy voice matches up nicely with Ms. Ross', and she twitches her twiggy frame capably as Diana moves from awkward teenager to glamorous diva."

Her family plans to watch the Tony Awards together on television Sunday night in Memphis. Vanessa Little, who finds herself listening to as much gospel as Motown lately, has been texting her daughter inspirational song lyrics. She recently sent this quote by gospel singer Sheri Jones-Moffett:

Times may be hard, but faith is the key! Go on and spread your wings/God made his investment into your destiny/So it's not too late to dream.

LeKae's grandmother, Dr. Lillie Lewis the one who encouraged her to get a sensible degree at U.T. says that while she may have once worried about her granddaughter's future in an industry that doesn't have the best opportunities for black artists, LeKae has always been a fighter, and a talent worth watching.

"When I saw her on Broadway, I was just blown away," Lewis says. "I've always told her that if you're going to do something, do it with all your might, and you will be rewarded. I always knew she had it in her."

Originally published by Christopher Blank Special to The Commercial Appeal .

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