STAGE TO SCREENS: Syesha Mercado, the "American Idol" Veteran, Is Now "One Small Girl" of Once On This Island

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13 Jun 2012

Syesha Mercado
Syesha Mercado

Syesha Mercado, who placed third on the seventh season of TV's "American Idol," takes to the New Jersey stage, where she stars as fearless peasant Ti Moune in Paper Mill Playhouse's production of Once On This Island.


It's not the first time that Syesha Mercado is taking on the role of Ti Moune in Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Tony Award-nominated musical Once On This Island. It's the third. Mercado, an "American Idol" finalist who garnered attention in the theatre scene for her performance as Deena Jones in the national tour of Dreamgirls, has been "waiting for life to begin" (as orphan Ti Moune sings) since middle school. Now, about a decade later — and two turns as the optimistic island girl — singing actress Mercado stars in a re-imagined production of Once On This Island under the direction of Tony Award nominee Thomas Kail (In the Heights). Following the opening night performance in Millburn, NJ, we caught a few minutes with the show's leading lady, who talked about landing the role at Paper Mill, the late Whitney Houston and "Waiting For Life," her show-stopping musical moment in the show.

What was the opening-night show like for you?
Syesha Mercado: For the first time I was excited to open, and I wasn't nervous. I think that's because I'm working with such a friendly, supportive creative team and cast. Everyone is so talented, so helpful and just full of love. The energy is magnetic on stage — you can't help but have fun and just enjoy the process. And, it's also an extreme relief for me because tech week was so heavy… I had so much going on outside of my life. I was so drained and vocally tired. I'm just happy that God got me through the show [and] that my knees didn't give out on me because I have some injuries going on. I just feel really blessed to be here.

Mercado in Once On This Island.
photo by Jerry Dalia

I noticed that you had knee braces on. What happened?
SM: I tore my menisci. On my last tour, [as Deena Jones in Dreamgirls], I fell backstage, and it kind of got worse over time. So when I got the call to do this show, I was like, "Oh my gosh, what am I going to do? I don't know if I can dance. I haven't even been squatting down to pick up a napkin!" … It goes to show how far faith and believing in yourself and challenging yourself [can go] — this is an example of what you can do. This whole play has just been a life-changing experience for me.

In the show, you have "Ti Moune's Dance." Did you find it to be a challenge, considering the injury?
SM: I was able to get through it! [Laughs.] I feel like it's not always about how far you can bend your leg back [or] how high you can kick up your leg, but it's more about the emotion — about what you feel — and about bringing honesty to the dance and being interpretive. It's not always about certain movements, but it's about the feeling and emotion that you get.

Well, vocally, you stopped the show with your first number, "Waiting for Life." Take me through that moment.
SM: It was amazing. It brought me back to high school when I had no fear. Sometimes, with the bigger you get in your career [and] the more things you have under your belt, you can lose that sense of innocence and being green — doing something for the first time and just doing it for the love of it. This show brought that back for me tonight. When I sang "Waiting for Life," I was on Cloud 9. Nothing mattered to me. I was out there like I was in high school playing Ti Moune and middle school playing Ti Moune — just enjoying it. I was finally able to enjoy myself again.


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