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A diva sings the blues

Times Staff Writer

What becomes a diva most?

Diana Ross knows.

She knows it’s more than just a stunning wardrobe, though she certainly had that at her first Los Angeles concert in years, a sold-out show Monday at the Pantages Theatre.

She knows it’s more than mere charisma, though that too oozed from her with sultry confidence during her generous, 2 1/4-hour concert.

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Above all, Ross has learned in her 60 years, most of them spent in the public eye, that a true diva needs that dramatic backdrop to all she does on stage: adversity over which she has triumphed.

Ross has had plenty of that in recent years, from her jail stint last spring stemming from a drunk-driving conviction in Arizona, the 2002 tour she scrapped upon entering a rehab center, and the attempted Supremes reunion tour that fizzled four years ago amid internal bickering.

She didn’t overtly acknowledge any of that Monday, a move that probably strengthened her bond with the worshipful fans by treating them as intimates fully versed in the details of her life.

Instead, she just beamed those pearly whites out at the crowd with the gratitude of one who had finally found her way home.

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For Ross, one of the rock era’s original divas, home is the stage, and that’s the way she treated it, as her own living room, albeit one spacious enough to accommodate 2,700 close friends.

Those friends included her mentor and the father of one of her five children, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. They also included songwriter Brian Holland, a third of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team that churned out hit after hit after hit through the 1960s and 1970s for the Supremes and most of the other acts in the Motown stable.

One of those hits that didn’t originally belong to Ross was the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” On Monday she and her skilled eight-piece band transformed it from the insistent march to victory it was in the Tops’ hands into a ballad of redemption echoing her own struggles.

Compelling as that moment was, she topped it in a mini-set devoted to Billie Holiday songs drawn from her star turn in the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues.” It would have been hard to guess through the Supremes’ career that Ross could bring any authority to the soul-deep torch songs that Holiday specialized in. Yet in “My Man” and “Don’t Explain,” she injected a world-weariness with a voice that has grown fuller than the thin, nasal instrument of her early career. That’s the one she resurrected for studio-like renditions of more than a dozen of her solo and Supremes hits.

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The drama -- and melodrama -- that have been integral to her life played out as subtext rather than text as Ross emphasized her age-defying sex appeal and outsized personality, which never crossed the line into rampant egocentrism.

But then jail tends to have a humbling effect, and Ross projected the humility of one who’s come close to losing the things dearest to her -- in her case her children, four of whom trotted on stage alongside her for the show’s finale.

The pace flagged during several extended instrumental jams that afforded her time to make costume changes -- nearly one per song -- and several dance-oriented tunes programmed to keep the disco-enthralled contingent happy sounded inconsequential next to the songs in which she fully invested herself.

She ought to consider stripping back the support sometime and doing an evening in a cabaret setting with just a small combo, so that she could completely explore her expressive capabilities.

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That, however, would allow more sonic space for fans like the one who kept interjecting “You sing it, Miss Ross!” during one of the Holiday tunes.

The unflappable star just kept singing and beaming. All, apparently, in a night’s work for a true diva.


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