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Review: Triangle stars a different Supreme

The Portland theater company pays tribute to Florence Ballard, the Motown girl group’s original lead singer, but leaves a wanting audience and an underserved legacy.

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From left: Abigail J. Lawrence as Florence Ballard, Bri-Skye McKizzie as Mary Wilson, Lydia Fleming as Diana Ross in “Flo.” Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

The Supremes had always shined in the spotlight shadow of their lead singer Diana Ross. The 1960s pop-soul trio and Motown’s leading act was renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes for three years before Ross left the group to launch her solo career. But playwright and Triangle Productions! founder Donald Horn, whose pen name is Donnie, wanted to tell a different Supremes story. 

In Flo, continuing through June 16, the leading lady is Florence Ballard (Abigail Lawrence), one of the group’s founding members. The teenager from the Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects has outsized dreams to turn her vocal powerhouse into a career, and organizes childhood friends Ross (Lydia Fleming), Mary Wilson (Bri-Skye McKizzie), and Betty McGlown (Essence Fleming) into a Detroit quartet. The group sustains a handful of evolutions. McGlown gets engaged and leaves the group. Barbara Martin (also played by Essence Fleming) replaces her but leaves two years later when she becomes pregnant. The Primettes, a sister act to The Primes, who become The Temptations, finally debut as The Supremes. 

In Flo, Abigail Lawrence opens the performance with a monologue reflecting on Ballard’s life. The singer admits briefly that her life did not end glamorously, but before then she experienced career thrills and achievements few can fathom. Small television screens near either side of the stage display historical images while Lawrence speaks — a befuddling choice distracting the audience from the stage performance. Lawrence shifts between playing a teenage Ballard navigating high school and singing with her friends and an older, omniscient self addressing the audience directly, or through a recorded track played during a frozen scene. 

When the second performance of opening weekend started on Saturday I was nervous, as I wasn’t sure Lawrence knew her lines. She paused frequently, stopping and starting, at times rolling her eyes upward. The mannered acting improved slightly as the performance continued and involved the rest of the cast. I cannot tell if the unnaturally slow and repetitive pace of speech and dialogue is a factor of the writing or improvisation. 

The actors’ movements also lacked the intentionality vital for immersing an audience in a stage performance. As good writing is precise, good blocking is deliberate, each stage position and gesture to deliver story or subtext. Actors swayed and gesticulated loosely, without physical embodiment of their words and worlds. The dancing similarly lacked the sharpness and energy that would be expected of a convincing Supremes performance. While the original group’s choreography was mostly simple footwork to accompany the singers’ stunning vocals, the women moved in sync with palpable passion for the music and stage. The actors on Saturday swung their limbs and looked languidly in different directions as a lead vocalist took the microphone. 

Kenneth Dembo as Motown chief Berry Gordy. Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics
Kenneth Dembo as Motown chief Berry Gordy. Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

A musical about this most successful American vocal group presupposes gorgeous or good vocals, but the actors’ performances tend to range from airy to hoarse. The exception is Lydia Fleming, whose solo performance of “Pretty Baby” enlivened the audience. Jubilation animated Fleming’s face as she sang and danced behind the microphone, showing that Diana Ross indeed loves to sing. Fleming also had one of the most committed acting performances, along with Kenneth Dembo, who played Motown founder Berry Gordy. The music executive recognizes the young women’s talent but insists on signing the group only after they graduate from high school. Dembo’s time on stage largely consisted of watching the women’s musical performances, but his own performance on the side or offstage was nearly more compelling. His body and countenance twisted open and close as he watched his rising act with open pleasure, or thought intently about what’s missing from the group’s sound and image. 

Triangle Productions!’ website writes that Flo is intended to reveal a lost narrative about the quintessential girl group in American music history and dispel myths perpetuated by Dreamgirls, a film starring Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson and loosely based on The Supremes. Horn dedicates the production to the original Mary Wilson, a friend who provided feedback on the script. 

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The musical chronicles Ballard’s life from meeting Wilson and Ross to recording The Supremes’ first album, ending the story before Ballard’s expulsion from the group. In between, Ballard’s father dies and a sexual assault incident leads her to quit school. These pivotal events lost potency when filtered through the production’s static blocking and lighting and set design. Plot development relied largely on passing dialogue, with few discernible transformations in the dynamic among actors and their environment that would indicate movement in the story. The conclusion of the performance felt abrupt, because the end was indistinguishable from the middle. 

I had expectations of a keener performance, following Horn’s triumphant return from New York City. His play Make Me Gorgeous! debuted in Portland in 2020 and later launched as an Off-Broadway success, extended twice for a six-month run that ended in March of this year. The solo performance recounting the life of trans trailblazer Kenneth Marlowe first starred Wade McCollum, Broadway star and former Portland favorite, and later Darius Rose/Jackie Cox, a veteran of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The Lucille Lortel Award, which recognizes the best of Off-Broadway, nominated the play for Outstanding Solo Show this year. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Rose Wong is a fiction writer and freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She previously covered early education for The Oregonian and healthcare and domestic violence for the Tampa Bay Times. She studied journalism and political science at Duke University.

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