"Dreamgirls" runs Dec. 16-27 at the France-Merrick… (Photo by Joan Marcus )
Reality show refugees Syesha Mercado and Shane Sparks couldn't have reacted more differently to landing key positions in the national touring production of "Dreamgirls," which opens Wednesday in Baltimore.
Mercado, a third-place finisher on "American Idol," wanted so desperately to land the role of tomboy-turned-diva Deena that she submitted to a grueling, five-month audition process.
Sparks, the hip-hop choreographer on "So You Can Think You Can Dance," came up with excuse after excuse to avoid working on his first Broadway show.
"I didn't dig at first that I was capable of choreographing a Broadway show," says the devilishly inventive - some would say demonic - dance impresario prone to dressing his contestants as robots or "Matrix"-style fighters. "It was like being hired to build a rocket ship when in the past I've put together model cars."
Mercado, the curly-haired performer with the luminous smile, struggled not to be intimidated by Deena's pedigree. It didn't help that the character is based on the life of Supremes singer Diana Ross, or that the role was portrayed in the 2006 film by Beyonce Knowles.
"There will always be comparisons, and sometimes I felt the world was on my shoulders," she says. "But I try to bring something different to the role."
Director Robert Longbottom was unconcerned that Mercado and Sparks lacked professional backgrounds in musical theater. He assured both that he was interested in their performing skills - not their television fan bases.
"I wanted the most talented people I could find on stage and behind the scenes," he says. "The bar was set very high. These roles need to be played by very young women, and very young women don't have a lot of production credits. There just aren't that many people walking around Broadway who have the chops to pull off this show."
Mercado and Sparks are the most recent examples of the migration of reality show alumni to Broadway, a trend that isn't likely to end for the foreseeable future.
There have been one-shot wonders such as Taylor Hicks ("Grease") or Clay Aiken ( "Spamalot"). But they aren't likely to return any time soon; both "Idol" finalists have acting ranges that are limited at best.
Still, the small screen has generated its share of performers who seem to thrive in front of a proscenium arch.
Former "Idol" contestant Fantasia Barrino won acclaim for her star turn in "The Color Purple." Laura Osnos, picked by television viewers to star as Sandy in a Broadway revival of "Grease," proved that wasn't a fluke when she was chosen to take over the role of Ensign Nellie Forbush in the acclaimed production of "South Pacific." And "Idol" alumnus Constantine Maroulis was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in " Rock of Ages."
In a way, then, it's no surprise that Mercado found stage work soon after finishing her commitments to "Idol" - especially since judge Simon Cowell criticized her pop performances as "too Broadway."
"Simon's comments didn't bother me," Mercado says, "It's always been a dream of mine to appear on Broadway, and Deena is a role that I can relate to.
"We both grew up in the projects. Our moms supported us and were our No. 1 fans. Deena and I both have moments of second-guessing ourselves when we don't believe in our talents and abilities."
To win the role, she had to submit to a rigorous series of tryouts and callbacks.
"I kind of felt like I was in high school all over again," she says. "Each time I made it to the next round of cuts, they gave me something new to work on and learn. ... I get nervous now every time I go into a room and there's a table with someone sitting behind it and writing remarks on a piece of paper."
But Mercado stood out right away.
"She won the part hands down," Longbottom says. "Syesha is a star. She's got it in her DNA. There are times when I'm not even sure that she's aware of how good she is, which is refreshing."
And, though Sparks might seem to be an unconventional choice to co-choreograph a big Broadway musical, Longbottom took his inspiration from an equally unusual choice made by Michael Bennett, the famed director of the original 1981 production.
"He hired Michael Peters, an African-American who had choreographed for Michael Jackson's videos, and they shared a Tony for their 'Dreamgirls' choreography," Longbottom says.
"I'd become a fan ... watching Shane on 'So You Think You Can Dance.' He's absolutely a breath of fresh air, and I wanted someone with street cred to help me choreograph this show. I grew up with tap shoes on, and Shane is this hip-hop boy. Both perspectives are important for 'Dreamgirls.' "
Sparks says working on "Dreamgirls" was eye-opening and "the best experience in the world." His style can be detected most clearly in "Steppin' to the Bad Side," in which the Dreams realize that a white girl group has stolen one of their songs and turned it into a mainstream hit.
"The music is angry, and the anger needed to come out in the choreography," Longbottom says. "Shane created a black Busby Berkeley moment."
Mercado and Sparks hope "Dreamgirls" won't be their last experience in musical theater, and if they get their wish, Broadway might become an even more interesting place.
Mercado would love to lend her vocals to "Ragtime" in the role of Sarah, an unwed mother who seeks to bury her baby alive.
Sparks, meanwhile, is trying to find backers for a full-length dance musical about the 2006 murder of children in Darfur called "The Rise of the Crown."
"This is a story that needs to be heard," he says.
If you go
"Dreamgirls" runs Wednesday through Dec. 27 at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sundays. No show Dec. 24. Tickets cost $20-$65. Call 410-547-7328 or go to france-merrickpac.com.