Valisia LeKae talks about playing Diana Ross in "Motown the Musical” and ovarian cancer

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2014 - 1:52 PM

Valisia LeKae was playing Diana Ross in “Motown the Musical” when a visit to the doctor changed everything.

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Tony Award nominee Valisia LeKae, left, mentored Samantha Koch, 15, last month as they prepared for the Garden of Dreams talent show in New York. The show gives kids who have faced illness, homelessness, poverty or tragedy an opportunity to perform in front of family and friends at Radio City Music Hall.

Photo: Avi Gerver • Associated Press/MSG Photos,

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Tony-nominated Broadway star Valisia LeKae hopes that the ending to her story will be happy and full of light, like some of the shows she has been in.

An ensemble actor who has performed in musicals such as “The Book of Mormon” and “Ragtime,” she broke into stage stardom last year for her role as Diana Ross in “Motown the Musical,” a widely praised performance that garnered her a Tony nod. But then things came to a sudden halt in December.

That’s when LeKae went in for a routine checkup with her gynecologist. Her doctor found that a cyst on her ovary had become enlarged. Further tests revealed, 10 days later, that she had ovarian cancer.

“It was devastating, really,” said LeKae, 34. “My symptoms were all silent. I had no back pain. I didn’t feel abnormal bloating. I thought this was something that happened to older women.”

She left the show, and her career, to dedicate her energies to healing herself. But the diagnosis, and the subsequent rounds of treatment, including chemotherapy, have given her a greater appreciation for life, she said.

LeKae flies into the Twin Cities this weekend to headline a gala for the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance. She will give an inspirational talk and may deliver a song a cappella.

“Music has been my life, and I’ve still got the gift,” she said. “I’ve also got my faith.”

That faith is what has carried her all the way from Memphis, where she was born, to Broadway. LeKae, whose birth name is Little, grew up in a home steeped in gospel, stories and music. Her mother, grandfather and older relatives all styled hair for a living. They also are devout Christians who perform in churches and encouraged Valisia’s singing even as they taught her to be practical.

She majored in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Family members “all wanted me to have a career, and they didn’t know much about life in theater,” she said. “I didn’t, either.”

Playing Dollywood

LeKae’s trajectory to stage has come through on-the-job training. She never really thought of theater as a career, even though she performed, as a teenager, at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s Tennessee theme park.

“It has 600 to 800 seats, which is the size of many regional theaters, and we made pretty good money,” she said.

When she did dream about music later in life, it was as a recording artist, like Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Diana Ross.

“I was obsessed with [Ross] as a child,” she said. “I would wear these outfits that were like hers and I would be singing my heart out around my grandfather’s hair salon.”

Ross came onstage on opening night of “Motown,” giving LeKae a hug that she does not remember. She was so in awe.

After her recent round of treatment, LeKae is cancer-free at the moment. Ovarian cancer, however, often returns.

“I’m very grateful to God that I’ve been given an opportunity to speak about my journey and ovarian cancer,” she said. “I can reach a different demographic. Although you typically don’t hear about this cancer being diagnosed in someone 34 or younger, it can happen to anyone.”

  • Ovarian Cancer Gala

    What: Mid Summer Night’s Gala headlined by Valisia LeKae.

    When: 5 p.m. Sun.

    Where: Brackett’s Crossing Country Club, 17976 Judicial Rd., Lakeville.

    Tickets: $75, 612-822-0500 or mnovarian.org.

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