In the Middle with You: Motown Stars Valisia LeKae and Brandon Victor Dixon
By Jonathan Mandell
Motown Tony Award nominee Valisia LeKae and Brandon Victor Dixon bring a complex relationship to the stage as music icons Diana Ross and Berry Gordy.
"You were my destiny," Diana Ross and Berry Gordy Jr. sing to one another in Motown: The Musical, which opened April 14 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The song is "You're All I Need to Get By," and the characters sing it at the start of their years-long tempestuous affair. Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, discovered The Supremes, made a star of Ross, and had a child with her.
The lyric, however, seems true as well for the two performers portraying the complicated couple. Valisia LeKae may well have been destined to play Diana Ross, and Brandon Victor Dixon to portray her mentor and lover.
LeKae grew up in Memphis and listened to Motown records in her grandfather's barbershop from an early age. Like Ross, she began singing in church. As a teenager working at the Tennessee theme park Dollywood, LeKae regularly sang the signature Supremes song "Stop! In the Name of Love."
"We share the love of entertaining," LeKae says in her dressing room, filled with flowers, photographs of Audrey Hepburn, and a huge coffee-table book about Diana Ross. She rattles off their other shared interests: "The love of singing, being around people, fashion, hair, makeup. Her spirit—I feel we share that too."
Dixon was struck from the moment he began working with LeKae, in workshops for Motown two years ago, by how similar his co-star seems to the person she's playing. "When we first met, I asked her, 'Are you trying to sound like her?'" Dixon says. "The similarities between them are very real, because Valisia idolized her."
Dixon might not have recognized Gordy's name growing up, but he certainly knew Motown. "Michael Jackson is my greatest artistic inspiration," Dixon says in his dressing room, which has a picture of Jackson who, as part of The Jackson Five, was a Motown artist. Over the last two years Dixon has gotten to know Gordy, who is not just the show's central character; he is also producer and book writer. "As I learn about Berry," Dixon says, "I see the similarities in our characters more and more. Like Berry, I'm confident in myself. I also recognize that I don't know everything. He was smart enough to surround himself with intelligent people."
Dixon grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the son of an electrical contractor. "Berry had a very loving family that he relied on a great deal; my family is very close... And I have a need for control. Berry said he learned at a certain point he felt he had to be in charge." Isn't it easier to be in charge if you own a business than if you make a living as an actor? "I've turned down Broadway shows that I didn't feel were right for me," Dixon replies.
It's hard to say that Motown is strictly about the relationship between Gordy and Ross, given that the show features three dozen performers playing some 90 characters singing nearly 60 songs while changing into about 400 costumes. But the connection between the impresario and the singer is a main focus. And LeKae and Dixon have come to recognize their own interactions mirror that of the people they portray.
"We're not in a romantic relationship, but we are certainly very close friends," Dixon says. "The closeness between Berry Gordy and Diana Ross helped make Motown special. Our closeness helps us on stage."
One time, Dixon noticed that LeKae seemed under stress and not taking good care of herself.
Dixon also offers LeKae suggestions on how to improve her performance—something that Gordy did with Ross, inciting her initial resistance. "The one thing about Berry that drove Diana nuts is that he is always right," LeKae says.
Brandon Victor Dixon and Valisia LeKae are both Broadway veterans—he is a Tony nominee for The Color Purple and she's been in four previous shows, including The Book of Mormon—and they make it clear that they are acting, not doing impersonations.
Still, the way they inhabit their roles has persuaded more than just members of the audience. "Sometimes Berry forgets she's not Diana Ross," Dixon says.
LeKae nods. "He'll say 'Remember that time when… ?'"
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