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'Dreamgirls' role enables Syesha Mercado to grow on, and off, the stage

Syesha Mercado is happy to be coming home.

Sort of.

For the most part.

Maybe.

"I have so many friends and family in the area," says the Gulf Coast-raised star of Dreamgirls, the Broadway staple coming to the Straz Center on Tuesday through Nov. 21. "It's exciting, but there's also so much stress. I only get a certain amount of comp tickets (for shows). It's a very low, low, lowww amount."

Plus the graduate of Sarasota's Booker High dreads the plus-1 shuffle: "Who's coming tonight? How are they getting their tickets? How many do they need?"

In other words, all you friends and colleagues of distant third cousins on her mama's side: It's called Ticketmaster, 'kay?

With a sigh, the 23-year-old says she's surprised at how hard fame can be. Never mind that her mother was a Motown backup singer, someone who taught her a thing or two about the showbiz life. "I used to follow her around the house singing," the daughter says wistfully.

Then there was that lil' career boost — and Hollywood baptism by fire — called American Idol: season seven, third place, lost to Davids Cook and Archuleta, even though she could out-sing and out-charisma both of 'em.

For all the celebucation of Mercado, she is just now realizing the complexities of being a bold-faced name — especially as she plays the lead role in a musical about the complexities of being a bold-faced name. As a result, she won't stay with friends and family when she's back home. Too busy, too demanding. "I'm going to stay with the Dreamgirls crew," she says of her safe haven.

If that sounds cold or distant, it's merely the Mercado way. She doesn't need constant adoration; but she does need solace. Mercado's rep on Idol was one of aloof confidence. She was an instantly polarizing presence; during Hollywood Week, she lost her voice and communicated via paper and pen. On a show that demands warm and middle-of-the-road, she wasn't.

Plus, unlike most Idol stars, she didn't cannonball into the pop-culture jet stream after bidding adieu to Simon & Co. She didn't immediately drop a lukewarm album that meant nothing to her or her fans. She didn't take any gig that would get her face on TV.

Instead, after taking a deep breath, she opted to hone her chops in the national touring production of Dreamgirls, winning the lead role of Deena Jones, first crafted in the original 1981 stage production by Sheryl Lee Ralph, then modernized in the 2006 feature film by Beyoncé.

Not easy acts to follow. Making things even tougher, Mercado's debut performance was November 2009 at New York City's infamous, and infamously harsh, Apollo Theater. Of that inaugural board stomp, she will only say: "Deena and Syesha have grown a lot since the Apollo."

As the centerpiece of 1960s Chicago girl group the Dreamettes, Deena Jones is based mainly on Motown's Diana Ross, whose innate star power, drive and ego led to turbulence within the Supremes (first called the Primettes). Deena's ascension, fueled by a money-smart manager, is a rocket ride she gradually learns to handle.

"In a way, Deena is me," says Mercado. "It's funny how art imitates life. We are one."

Mercado laughs self-consciously of melding with Deena. "I've learned from playing the role every night to be fearless," she explains. "And in life, I'm learning what it means to be fearless. Sometimes the role hits so close to home. Am I playing the character or am I playing myself?"

One thing is certain: Deena and Syesha do what they think will make them happy. And if people don't like that, too bad.

"A lot of people associate diva with bad," says Mercado. "But for me, diva is someone who is confident and believes in themselves. When they walk in a room, there is an aura about them, they command energy, everyone wants to see what they're wearing.

"You don't have to be mean to be a diva."

That said, all you third cousins and former classmates: Seriously, buy your own Dreamgirls tickets.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467.

. IF YOU GO

Dreamgirls

The show opens Tuesday and runs through Nov. 21 at Carol Morsani Hall at David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets start at $38.50. (813) 229-7827; strazcenter.org. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Nov. 18; 8 p.m. Nov. 19; 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 20; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21.

, Don't forget Fantasia!

If Syesha Mercado was a cool, albeit detached, belter on American Idol, season three champ Fantasia Barrino was the opposite: emotional, in-your-face and capable of hitting notes only dogs could hear. Coming to the Straz in Tampa with special guest Eric Benet, the curvy, flirty and defiantly eccentric North Carolina native will belt out a bevy of R&B burners, including cuts from new album Back to Me. Fame has not always been easy for Fantasia. There have been rumors of dating a married man, then attempted suicide, all while filming her own reality TV show, Fantasia for Real, on VH1. But the eight-time Grammy nominee seems to be back on track with her first headlining tour. Fantasia is also wicked with a camera phone (some might say a little too wicked), so if you're sitting in the front row, be prepared for your candid close-up. The show is 8 p.m. Friday and tickets start at $34.50. (813) 229-7827.

'Dreamgirls' role enables Syesha Mercado to grow on, and off, the stage 11/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 7:48am]

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