Diana Ross -- Miss Ross to you, Diane to family and (Motown) friends -- heart-stoppingly opened Brooklyn's restored King's Theatre last night (Feb. 3) by entering from the back of the vast, spectacularly refurbished auditorium.
On the way to the stage, very appropriately singing "I'm Coming Out," she passed me within five feet. She was wrapped in a ruffled and fluffy celadon robe and looking very much like a Floating Island dessert, looking like Bali H'ai sailing by. For a woman now 70, she also looked as she has for the couple of decades since she's sported the signature flying coiffeur.
She also sounded as she has ever since the earliest Supremes days. The barely altered voice is bright, strong, slightly nasal and filled with jubilation. I contend now -- and have since I was reviewing her singles and albums for Record World, the now defunct trade magazine -- that the smile was the major impetus for Ross's enormous appeal. It's the source of her charisma and is lodged in the Great Silver Screen Smile Pantheon with the smiles of Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Julie Christie and Julia Roberts.
Once Ross reached the stage, she beamed throughout and certainly through the four -- count 'em 4 -- costume changes. Those who were present expressly to see the wardrobe will have noted that the celadon robe and glittery green body-hugging gown (everything she wore hugged the still thin and supple form) was followed by a red outfit, a silver outfit, a yellow outfit and a black outfit -- "my going home clothes" is how she described the final frock.
(Who's behind the meant-to-dazzle ensembles? Since no word on a designer has arrived by press time, this bedazzled spectacle spectator can only guess at Bob Mackie or maybe the lady herself, who once thought about designing fashions.)
What did she sing? What do you think she sang? The first segment of the tireless 70-minute show was devoted to the Top 40 (usually chart-topping) Supremes singles. Walking back and forth across the wide stage and frequently raising her arms to embrace the sold-out house, she delivered trimmed versions of the hits. They were mostly reduced to repeated hooks, as if she'd had them arranged to reflect contemporary songs that simply repeat one or two declarative phrases until they finally stop.
Was that bothersome? Was it bothersome when glaring, blaring lights above the proscenium hit the crowd every time she sang "Stop!" during her bow to "Stop! In the Name of Love." No, it wasn't bothersome. It might have been if she'd skipped the modulation in "Baby Love" that ranks with the most enthralling modulations in the history of arrangements. But, thank providence, she didn't exclude it.
(In place of Supremes Mary Wilson, Brenda Ballard and Cindy Birdsong, she had Valerie Pinkston, Lamont Van Hook and Fred White behind her. She referred to them not as "back-up singers" but as her "voices.")
For her second section, she covered the post Supremes years. For the third, she included the movie songs -- "Ease on Down the Road" and "Don't Explain," and for the fourth, "I Will Survive," which she'd covered after Gloria Gaynor had declared herself the original survivor. For most of the familiar material (a sizable hunk of it now 50 years old) she flashed the famous wide, rectangular smile and sauntered elegantly. The only time she stopped moving was when she sang Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain."
And if you ask me, the "Don't Explain" rendition, recalled from her Lady Sings the Blues triumph, was the high point. For the only time in the set, she acted the lyrics, proving she's an accomplished jazz stylist as well as the actress we all know her to be. She never impersonated Holiday, as, for instance Audra McDonald recently did sublimely on stage in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. Instead, she brought herself to the role--and still is bringing herself to it.
Needless to say, it wasn't the sensational Motown house band playing for Ross but a nine-man combo that helped her raise the stunningly gaudy King's Theatre roof off its renovated hinges. They were George Svetich, Michael Sechrest, Gerald Brown, Cecil Thomas, Mark Miller, John Isley, John Scarpulla, Carl Fischer and Ronald Powell.
They handily recreated the unique Motown sound, and it's unlikely that any of the Motown men could or would have done what percussionist Powell did: roll a tambourine up one arm, around the back of his neck and down the other arm. That was only one of the devices used to cover the minutes Miss Ross was in the wings changing.
In all, you have to say that while appearing to be enjoying herself completely--adored while not begging to be adored, as too many divas do--she gave the audience exactly what they paid to see.
She also had the good grace to praise the theater where she'd been tapped to break revived ground. She encouraged the crowd to look around, which is just what they should have made sure to do in appreciation of what $95 million has done to reopen a 1929 edifice, designed by Rapp & Rapp. As part of its history, it was shuttered in 1977 and left to fall in on itself for too long.
Now revitalized by Martinez + Johnson Architecture, it's intended by the money spent ($50 from the City, $45 from private donors like Goldman Sachs) not only as the reintroduction of a neighborhood pleasure palace but also as the fulcrum of a Flatbush revival. Which makes especially cogent its arrival the same week Mayor Bill de Blasio begins plugging for citywide rezoning.
How quickly King's Theatre will fulfill that part of its mission remains to be seen. (A proposed new and nearby hotel isn't promised imminently.) Nothing, however, can gainsay Diana Ross's five-star inaugural appearance in the hallowed space, making it not one but two comings out.