Rich Lopez  |  Staff Writer

This weekend is the final one for Dreamgirls, which stars former American Idol finalist Syesha Mercado as Deena Jones, the sexy (and small) singer who ousts heavy-set powerhouse Effie White as lead in the Motown band. We spoke to Mercado about her experience from just missing the top spot at American Idol to the star-turning role in this touring production. But she also filled us in on what makes her tick and how the LGBT community has big meaning in her life.

Dallas Voice: Is Dreamgirls your first theatrical venture? Mercado: I am excited to say this is my first professional theatrical project. But acting has always been a part of my life. I studied theater from secondary school to college, while working as an actress in Miami doing commercials and TV shows.

How were you cast? My agency told me about the auditions while I was on the Idol’s Live Tour and months later after the tour wrapped up I flew to New York to audition. After a long and tedious six months of callbacks and waiting, I got the call from my agent while I was in front of Radio City that I got the part.

Dreamgirls itself seems to be a springboard for American Idol alum — Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar playing Effie in the movie version. How do you think this tour will affect your career? I think it’s really a coincidence that Jennifer Hudson did the movie and I am doing the [stage] musical. Most Idols I know share the same passion for the stage and film. That’s why so many of us are in the field of theater now. I chose to take on this project because it’s always been a dream of mine to do a Broadway musical.

I’ve always seen Broadway as a completely different world and now I have the opportunity to be a part of that community. The day I accepted this part was the day this project started affecting my life. The more I do the show the more I learn about my character and myself. This tour is preparing me for the next big step in my career, it’s allowing me to grow as a performer and it can only go up from here. I look forward to all the opportunities that await.

What in you brings out Deena Jones? Deena and I share a lot of similarities. It’s a little scary how art imitates life. I am at a time in my life where I have figured out many of my wants. I am really growing up and becoming a woman. Throughout the story we see Deena coming in to her own and finding the power to break free from visions and dreams she doesn’t want for herself. She finds her peace and stands up for her passion in the end. She follows her lifelong Dream to be an entertainer. I can relate in many ways. I know this story so well it’s a little scary.

My mother’s maiden name is Jones and even though the play doesn’t show the young Deena before she auditioned at the Apollo, I know who that girl is. She is me. A shy girl, ambitious and determined to be an entertainer, to change the world, a girl who for the first part of her life grew up in the projects and faced all the struggles that came with that lifestyle, very protective mother… you can read the rest in my novel I’ll write one day. Every night the performance is different and that is the beauty of live theatre. My spirit and past experiences help bring out Deena Jones when I’m stage. This play deals with many strong messages; discrimination, betrayal, family, finding one’s self, but I absolutely love the message of dreams. I did a concert right after Idol called Follow Your Dreams. It is my main message and that is why I was so excited to take on this body of work, because it is an important story to tell. You don’t have to be in the music industry to relate to the desire to follow your dream. We all have dreams!

I read that Simon Cowell said your voice was more for the stage and now you’re doing that.  How does that make you feel and do you want a theater career or singing pop star one? Simon has said a lot of things. That was his personal opinion and being in this industry I’ve learned the most important opinion is the one I have of myself. I would like to look at that comment as a compliment that I am capable of doing more than just pop music. That week on Idol was Broadway Week, so I brought out that side of me.

I really love the stage, but I’m really excited about finally giving the world my talent and voice as an artist. I’ve really taken the time after Idol and the little time I have off-stage to build out the type of conversation that I want to have with all of my amazing fans that have been anticipating the release of my new music.

You’re 23 — still so young. What do you want to accomplish with your singing? Since I was a little I always wanted to be a singer so that I could make a difference in the world. As cliché as it sounds, that was the only reason why I really wanted to be a singer. Singing in front of crowds always made me nervous, especially since I was so shy. But I always managed to get past the nervous, because I knew that when I would sing it was the opportunity to make a difference. I wanted to motivate people to go after their dreams and aspirations and I still want to be an inspiration to others through my music and art. I want to use my fame to reach the masses and change the world! In many ways, I’ve had the opportunity to do much of that through Idol, concerts I’ve done, and through performing Dreamgirls eight to nine times a week all over the world and there is still much more to do.

My number one goal after this tour is to put out my debut album. I’ll be going back to L.A. after the tour hitting up the studio hard. I’m being patient on putting out my album until it’s at a place where it embodies all that I want to say. It’s been a very exciting and rewarding process recording and working with Grammy Award-winning songwriters and producers. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some prominent names: Diane Warren, Jud Friedman, Evan Bogart, Scott Cutler and Anne Preven (“Listen”), Reo (Beyonce’s “Hello”) Chris Rojas, and many more. I will keep everyone posted on dates and info on my website and of course my Twitter and Facebook.

How do you like acting? Are you considered a triple threat? Acting’s been a passion of mine since my first play in elementary school One Special Cookie. When I was younger I use to impersonate people and create characters in the mirror all the time. I still do this sometimes. I would even watch movies over and over again and memorize all the lines: acting out each scene like I was inside the TV screen. My family found it amusing. I was accepted into a charter middle school and that gave me the chance to take on every aspect of the arts from ballet to piano. You couldn’t leave Manatee School for the Arts without being considered a triple threat. We had to learn it all. I also went on to a Theatre Visual Performing Arts Program at Booker High and I studied theatre as my major in high school.

Whose career do you look up to? Every artist or entertainer out now is constantly evolving and figuring out the next big thing for themselves, just like me. There is no limit to the height you can reach in the industry. There will always be more to accomplish and pursue. However, in order for me to look up to someone they have to embody a humble spirit as well. That being said, Jennifer Hudson is someone I admire. She’s an Idol alum who didn’t win, but has had much success in her career all through hard work and perseverance. I had the opportunity to meet her before Dreamgirls opened up at the Apollo and she was so humble, kind and down to earth. I admire her strength and her determination, despite the obstacles she’s faced she is still standing tall. She has a touching story and is the perfect example of what can happen when you follow your dreams. Those are the type of people I look up to.

I also admire the sweet and humble Fantasia for her ability to get through all of life’s adversities and come out strong. Alicia Keys has been my idol since the day one saw her performing her music video “Fallin’.” That was my anthem and audition song for years. She really has impressed me with all of her music accomplishments and not to mention she has made her way to the silver screen just like Deena Jones wanted to do and just like I’m going to do. Lady Gaga and Beyonce I look up to as well, because they are strong, smart business women who know what they want and they’ve gone after it and made it happen; clothing lines, thinking out of the box, movies, awards — hard working women.

Dreamgirls appeals hugely to a gay audience. Are you ready for a whole new slew of gay fans discovering you and then possibly doing drag to your performances? Oh I am sooooo ready. The more the merrier.

We have a sort of American Idol-esque contest going on right now called Voice of Pride. It stems from the gay community but doesn’t discriminate against anyone competing. Winners perform at our Pride festival and the solo singing winner will go to Manchester, England for Pride to perform. The level of fame after the contest is different than post-American Idol, but what advice would you give these budding singers looking for their big chance in this contest? First of all, that is wonderful! My advice to everyone participating would be to pick a song that makes them feel fierce or something that just resonates well with them. Regardless if it’s a ballad or up-tempo pick a song that lets you command the stage. Know what your singing and doing onstage. The more prepared you are with the material the more confident you’ll feel and the easier the process will be. You can’t have fun if you are worried or unsure about what you are doing so be prepared! Success is when preparation meets opportunity.

I’m gonna back you into a corner now. Do you think you’d stop by to watch while you’re in town? Of course, I would love to if I’m not busy. I performed at two Pride events before (L.A. Pride and Chicago Pride). There is nothing like the support, loyalty and love that LGBT’s show. They always know how to show up and show out. Love it! I am a huge supporter of the gay community myself. I recently was part of the NOH8 Campaign. It was great to see so many celebrities standing up for LGBT rights. Growing up, I saw first-hand the discrimination my friends faced, because of the indifference and prejudices of people who just were ignorant to change. This is why I support Pride week and NOH8, because I want to be a voice for those who are afraid to speak out and be who they are. I want them to know it’s OK to be you and proud of it. Be who you are and love whom you want to love, because at the end of the day you have to look in the mirror at yourself and be happy with what you see.

Do you have a gay BFF? If so, how does he/she participate in your life differently than non-gay friends? Oh yes, many. My BFF lives in Cali. We both moved there after I wrapped up the Idol’s Live Tour. We have been friends since high school. We were in the same theater program and have had the pleasure to act side by side in leading roles. He was my Daniel in Once on This Island and I was his Ti’moune. He has been the most loyal of all my friends. When I need him, he is always there. He was in the audience at my Idol shows and most recently there for me during my audition process for Dreamgirls encouraging me every step of the way. I also have a very special friend who was first a fan and he started my Syesha Fanesha’s Fan Club back in my Idol days, which is now Syesha Nation. I am so proud of him, because he recently just came out. He is a big supporter of mine as well. Not to mention when I play him some of my demos he helps me pick out the fierce ones that the gay boys would love.

Dreamgirls at Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First St. Through Sunday. Friday–Saturday at 8 p.m. Weekend matinees at 2 p.m. $15–$65.