Raleigh dancer Ariana DeBose sings and acts in ‘Motown: The Musical’

CorrespondentApril 13, 2013 

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    “Motown: The Musical” opens April 14 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway, 205 W. 46th St. in New York. Tickets and information: motownthemusical.com

In the theater world a triple threat is a performer who can sing, dance and act. Ariana DeBose always said that was her goal even as she gained renown as a dancer – a Top 20 finalist, thank you very much – on television’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” and then in dance sequences on the soap opera “One Life To Live” and as one of the sidekicks to the dance team queen in the musical “Bring It On: The Musical.”

Now the 22-year-old DeBose, who grew up in New Bern and Raleigh, has her biggest challenge as a triple-threat performer: she’s featured as singer Mary Wilson, part of the world-famous trio The Supremes, in the new Broadway show “Motown: The Musical.”

It’s a role that calls for a lot of singing, some acting and virtually no dancing.

“As a Supreme it’s just step touch, step touch as far as the dance goes. This is really giving me an opportunity to hone and show off a different set of skills. It’s an opportunity to show I’m not a one-trick pony,” DeBose said during a phone interview. “I see it as a great opportunity. Sure, I would love to someday have a huge featured dance part, but that situation isn’t always there. So this is my opportunity to show I can do whatever you need me to do and I love that.”

DeBose may be doing The Supremes’ classic step-touch for a while. The show officially opens April 14, but the buzz from preview performances has been strong and the show grossed $1 million in each of its first two weeks of performances, instantly catapulting it to hit status.

“Motown” takes audiences through the first 25 years of triumphs and struggles behind the scenes of the record label as recalled by the label’s founder Berry Gordy, who helped write the show. Gordy’s romance with singer Diana Ross as she rose from the Supremes to a solo artist is a central plot.

The musical features more than 60 Motown classics (some of them mere excerpts) made famous by singers like Mary Wells, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, the Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye. Songs Gordy wrote before Motown, like his hits for Jackie Wilson, are also included.

DeBose admitted that before the show she didn’t even know who Gordy was, let alone the names of the young women who had once sung with Ross during the Supremes’ heyday as queens of the ‘60s soul and pop music scenes. But once she started to do some research during the audition process, DeBose said she became even more excited at the possibility of being a part of “Motown.”

“Motown is the music of a generation but this music belongs to everyone,” DeBose said, acknowledging the large multigenerational audiences that have been packing the theater since the show began previews last month. “It’s incredible. The energy in this theater is absolutely electric. There’s just this excitement about this show. People just want to see it.”

And, she added, Gordy has been a constant presence behind the scenes, talking to DeBose and the others in the show about the legends they’re portraying.

“He’s given me notes. He speaks to all of us about how these people were and even the little things like their mannerisms,” DeBose said.

Not that DeBose doesn’t still want to be the next Gwen Verdon or Chita Rivera. After all, she trained primarily as a dancer growing up, studying at CC and Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh. But the Wake Forest-Rolesville High School alum also spent considerable time training with and performing in musical theater productions with North Carolina Theatre, Broadway Series South and Western Carolina University’s Triple Arts Broadway Series.

“In the (theater) community there aren’t many roles being written that require you to just dance. I hope to change that. I hope there’s a place for that in the future of Broadway,” DeBose said. “But I want to be able to do everything – stage and television too. I want to keep it moving, keep working, and keep striving.”

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