At least three times before Thursday night's Diana Ross concert at the Chicago Theatre, I overheard people in the crowd explaining why they were there. Each statement went something like this: "I'm just glad to have the chance to see her. You never know how many more tours she's got in her."
Ghoulish? A little. Ageist? Probably. But it's a fair question: Why pay to see a senior citizen sing?
Ross is 66, and she doesn't exactly have anything new to perform, or even say. Her most recent album, 2007's "I Love You," defines the word uninspired. The current tour is a businesslike, 90-minute trot through 25 of her well-known, oversaturated hits. We've seen this before, more than a few times.
So why is the show so good?
It comes down to good old-fashioned work ethic. Many of those '60s Motown stars complained of near abuse under the strict tutelage of Berry Gordy (Motown founder, and father of one of Ross's children), but they learned, literally and figuratively, how to hoof it for the ticket buyers. This is the side of show business that's not about high art, not about changing your life. It's about buoying your life. To accomplish that simple act of escapism, a performer pastes on that smile and gives the people what they want.
But it's easy to buy Ross's act, and she still looks fabulous. Even now -- did I mention she's 66? -- her smile is girlish and gleeful. The figure is robust and curvy, showcased Thursday by half a dozen gowns. That broad mane of hair remains wondrous. She spends nearly the entire show making eye contact with everyone in the audience she can see. She blows carefully targeted kisses. She sings "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," and does so. She mugs with the string section and makes them laugh. Act or not, she's having a ball.
Which maybe answers the other legitimate question: Given the stress of touring and performing, why would a senior citizen keep hitting the road? She works hard for the money, launching world tours every few years. Maybe she needs to. She had 18 No. 1 hits, but given all the late-'60s lawsuits over Motown royalties, maybe she needs the scratch.
Then again, sometimes we worker bees rush to assume that once a dollar figure is met, it's goodbye paycheck. But some folks like working, even live for it. When the work involves constant applause and adoration, it's not easy to quit. So there's Ross, waving back to the sold-out Chicago Theatre crowd, accepting pink teddy bears from gushing fans, drinking it in. "You make an aging diva work so hard," she said before her final song. "But I want you to know: When you're watching me up here, I'm also watching you. I love seeing your faces and your smiles."
When she finished "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," she said, "I mean that. If you need me, call me," suggesting an impossible intimacy. (Alas, I do not have Ms. Ross' number in my phone.) She has only that dream left to offer, but it's a potent one. Her 18-piece band is solid but not spectacular. The arrangements are basic, not flashy (except for a spunky salsa breakdown at the end of "Love Child"). Ross chugged through each hit at largely the same dynamic: strong -- and in remarkable, fine voice -- but without flourish.
This is work. She has to do this, and the fans need it, whatever their reasons. However many tours she's got left in her, she promised us: "You'll always have me!"