Motown Maven

Somewhere at UT there’s a video of Valisia LeKae (’01, A&S) belting out Diana Ross tunes in an audition for the Women’s Chorale group. She didn’t make the cut, but that’s okay with her—especially since she was recently nominated for a Tony Award for her portrayal of Ross in the Broadway hit Motown The Musical.

The Memphis native knew she belonged at UT after a high school visit. “I fell in love with it,” says LeKae. “I only visited a couple of schools, but I felt so welcomed at UT, and the campus was just so beautiful.”

Though she had been singing since the age of six, LeKae knew that she needed to pursue a degree that was a little more substantial—something to fall back on in case her dreams of becoming a performer didn’t pan out. She originally planned to become a doctor, but soon switched her major to psychology.

During her freshman and sophomore years, LeKae put her performing talents to good use as one of the Smokey mascots. “Being a mascot really helped with schooling. Having some of the best tutors available and working out at the [athletics] facilities was wonderful,” she says.

She also spent two years as a performer at Dollywood before setting her sights on New York City to become a recording artist.

“I bedazzled my graduation cap with NYC because I knew that’s where I was going,” she says with a laugh.

LeKae had about $200 in her pocket when she left for the Big Apple. She had nowhere to stay and no job prospects when she applied to be a USO girl.

On Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Left to right, Sydney Morton (Florence Ballard), Valisia LeKae (Diana Ross, Ariana DeBose (Mary Wilson)

On Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. From left, Sydney Morton (Florence Ballard), Valisia LeKae (Diana Ross), Ariana DeBose (Mary Wilson)

She wasn’t chosen as Miss USO, but she was one of five girls who were picked to take part in the show. One of the other girls took her in and gave her a place to stay.

It was also one of the USO girls who gave LeKae her ticket into the world of theatre. When LeKae’s USO friend couldn’t make it to a scheduled audition, she called ahead and told them LeKae would be coming instead. LeKae auditioned for director Charles Randolph-Wright, who said she wasn’t right for that particular role but loved her so much that he passed her name along to someone else in the business. And she’s been working ever since.

Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

That audition has paid off in an even bigger way now that Randolph-Wright is directing her in Motown The Musical. Since she came to New York, LeKae has appeared in Broadway productions like The Book of Mormon, The Threepenny Opera, 110 in the Shade (with fellow alum and Tony Award winner John Cullum), and Ragtime.

Though she has garnered other honors for Motown—a Theatre World Award win and nominations for the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Award—it was the Tony nomination that made LeKae feel a sense of accomplishment.

Since LeKae didn’t start out in theatre she looked at each new production as another classroom. “It was like going to school all over again,” she says. “And to know that I spent the last few years working in the theatre and years later received a Tony nomination; it felt like graduation day.”

She has certainly mastered the role of Diana Ross. Just ask Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, author of the book on which the musical is based, and father of Ross’s daughter.

“He tells me that I’m so much like Diana,” LeKae says. “He believes in me and that’s more important than anything.”

She counts it an honor to be able to bring back some of those memories of the good times in Gordy and Ross’s relationship.

“I can see the spark in his eye and know that he’s remembering what it was like to see Diana on stage.”

For a girl who remembers picking out Motown records and singing along to them with her grandfather’s barbershop jukebox, the role is a dream come true.

And another dream became a reality with the recent release of the musical’s official cast recording. LeKae can now call herself a recording artist.

“It’s part of living the dream,” LeKae says. “I’m so grateful that I stuck with it.”

On Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross and Brandon Victor Dixon as Berry Gordy.

On Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross and Brandon Victor Dixon as Berry Gordy.

One comment on “Motown Maven

  1. We met her last Friday night at the Stage Door after experiencing Motown The Musical. Motown was wonderful! Valisia was wonderful! And when we discovered we were both UT grads we shared a “go Vols” hug. She is so sweet and so talented!