Syesha Mercado is excited to be playing the coveted role of Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls” which opened at Heinz Hall Dec. 29.
“I love the role of Deena Jones because it hits so close to home. It feels very similar to my story because I had to become vulnerable and we’ve all had hardships and trying to find ourselves,” said Mercado, second runner-up on the second season of Fox-TV’s “American Idol.” “Like Deena Jones, (while) growing up my family was my biggest support system. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. I grew up in the projects like Deena and she set goals like I did and she tried to win competitions like I did.”
“Dreamgirls” tells the story of a 1960’s African-American all-girl singing group that has dreams of making it big.
The music for this production was composed by Academy Award nominee Henry Krieger. The show is co-choreographed by Shane Sparks of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame.
The original play started as a project slated for late actress Nell Carter. Tom Eyen, who wrote a book and lyrics to the musical, and Krieger were so inspired by Carter’s performance they put together a musical about Black backup singers. It was originally called “One Night Only,” and was later renamed “Dreamgirls.”
In 1979 the project got new life and starred Obba Babatunde (the father from “Half & Half”), and then 20-year-old singer, Jennifer Holliday.
The show debuted on Broadway in 1981 and closed four years later after 1,521 performances. It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards in 1982. It won six. Holliday won Best Actress in a Musical. “Dreamgirls” also won three Drama Desk Awards that year.
A film adaptation of the show was released by Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures in theaters on Christmas Day, 2006, 25 years after the opening of the original Broadway production.
The movie starred “American Idol” alum Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Beyonce Knowles as Deena Jones.
In 2007, “Dreamgirls” won three Golden Globes and two Academy Awards. It also won the African-American Film Critics Association Award and a Grammy for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media for “Love You I Do.”
When Mercado found out about the new stage production of “Dreamgirls,” she knew she had to be a part of it.
“It’s not very often that an opportunity like this comes along. It was a no-brainer (for me to audition) because it was fresh in everyone’s head and it was important for me to do this for my generation. I sang ‘And I Am Telling You’ and ‘You Are My Dream’ in high school so this is a dream role for me.
“This production is new and fresh but a lot of the scenes are the same. There will be a different energy on stage and the music and the scenes are beautiful,” she added.
Mercado, 22, was born in Bridgeport, Conn. and grew up in Sarasota and Bradenton, Fla. She dreamed of becoming a gospel singer. Mercado attended Booker High School for Visual and Performing Arts in Sarasota. While there she performed in dozens of shows. In 2005, at the Florida Theatre Conference and the South Eastern Conference, she won Best Supporting Actress for her role as the Sour Kangaroo in “Seussical the Musical.” In 2006 she appeared as a contestant in the short-lived ABC talent show, “The One: Making a Music Star.”
A year later the determined performer auditioned for “American Idol,” quickly winning over the hearts of America with her talent.
“Since I was a little girl I always wanted to perform and I used to watch ‘American Idol’ and I would sing with the remote control. I always pretended that I was on there and now I had the chance to be on the show,” Mercado said.
She feels that future contestants on the show will miss out on a vital component since Paula Abdul has left.
“She’ll be missed and replacing her with anyone makes it a completely different show. It’s kind of sad that future contestants don’t get to experience that nurturing that we did. She was always very thoughtful with us.”
The new stage production of “Dreamgirls” began its national tour at the Apollo Theater Nov. 22.
“It was an honor and a privilege to be on a stage that people like Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson and Lauryn Hill have performed on,” Mercado said. “You can feel their energy on stage. The building is very historic. It was a great experience being there.”
The Apollo run of “Dreamgirls” ended Dec. 12.
The show began a six-night run at Heinz Hall Dec. 29. It also stars Chaz Lamar Shepard, Moya Daniels and Margaret Hoffman.
“Dreamgirls” will finish July 18.
After that, Mercado plans to devote her time to working on her forthcoming R&B/pop CD, which is slated for release next year.
(Tickets for the production range from $22 to $66. For more information or to purchase tickets call 412- 392-4900. or visit www.pgharts.org.)