When Karis Anderson was offered the role of leading lady Diana Ross in Motown: The Musical, she was stunned.
She had originally only gone for a much smaller part, but the show’s producers obviously saw something in her audition.
‘I was more than happy with an ensemble part,’ says Karis, ‘I was thrilled just to be part of the show, but then when I got this, it was like the gift that kept on giving.’
She has now been playing The Supremes and solo singer in the show since last October to rave reviews.
The show, as the name suggests, tells the story of the legendary Detroit record label – from how Berry Gordy borrowed $800 dollars to set it up, to establishing the world-beating roster, including The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokie Robinson, Marvin Gaye and many more. It features more than 50 songs as it whips through the label’s history, the relationships, the struggles and of course, the music.
‘It is intense,’ admits Karis. ‘More than anything, it’s quite emotionally testing – it’s obviously physically testing as well, but it is emotional.
‘We’ve all gone through ups and downs while on tour, it can be quite emotionally draining, and I think I took that side of things for granted but I’m lucky enough to work alongside Ed Baruwa (who plays Gordy), who is my rock, and the whole cast are absolutely amazing.’
Karis has form as part of a singing trio – she is part of the platinum-selling group Stooshe. And the video for their biggest hit, Black Heart has a distinctly ’60s girl-group vibe to it...
‘I feel like my life has done the biggest 360 in the weirdest way.
‘The Supremes and Motown were one of our biggest inspirations in the band – Diana Ross especially. It’s a little bit overwhelming sometimes because life is such a crazy thing. I’m so blessed I get to do this, and it still links to what I was doing before.’
And Karis was unaware of Motown’s role in the civil rights movement – which has struck a deeply personal note.
‘I was just a pure fan of Motown. To be in the show and to learn so much about what Berry Gordy did for the civil rights movement and what Motown did to bring the races together...
‘For me, my mum’s white and my dad’s black, and just to think what it must have been like to be a mixed race person at that time. There’s a plethora of things that go much deeper than just the music.
‘It’s been an amazing journey to learn that side of things, and we’re so blessed to tell that story every single day.’
On a more lighthearted note, Karis, has to contend with several costume and wig changes during each performance – many of them faithful copies of Ross’s own outfits.
‘There’s a lot of quick changes in the wings when I’m frantically throwing things off and I’ve got three people helping me to get my wig and my shoes and my outfit off, but I’m so used to it now, it’s just in my body.’
This isn’t the first time though, that Karis has played a soul legend on stage. She played First Cut is The Deepest singer PP Arnold in a short West End run of All Or Nothing, the Small Faces jukebox musical, right before joining Motown.
‘I got to meet her, she’s actually good friends with the director of that show, Carol Harrison, so she got her down,’ Karis recalls.
‘That was one of the most nerve-racking times of my life – I could see her when I was on stage while I’m singing her songs! It was crazy. But she was lovely and complimentary afterwards. It was such a surreal feeling.’
Karis is with the tour until its finish in January, but after that she’s planning to stick with musical theatre for a while.
‘Yes, for now. It was a big dream of mine from when I was young, so when Stooshe started dying down, I told the other girls I was going to get myself an agent and start doing auditions – but it happened really quickly.
‘I thought I would be doing ensemble parts for a few years, I don’t have any of my Stooshe credits on my (performing arts specialists) Spotlight CV – I wanted to get booked purely on my ability when I walk in that room. I feel very blessed to do this role so soon.’
So what does this mean for Stooshe?
‘Me and the girls always talk about this. They do a few gigs as a duo because unfortunately I can’t make it when I’m on tour, but we’ve got some booked in for next year – we never announced that we’ve split up because we’re still best friends, we could come back to it at any point.
‘Never say never.’
MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton