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Syesha Mercado and the original Dreamgirls celebrate opening night at the Ahmanson

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So you think performing in front of Simon Cowell sounds like a stress fest?

Well, you’re right. That’s just about the worst. But opening in “Dreamgirls” in front of an audience that included the three original Dreamgirls – Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine – runs a close second. (Though they’re a wee bit nicer.)

“Tonight was really scary,” “American Idol” alum Syesha Mercado said after “Dreamgirls” opened Tuesday night at the Ahmanson Theatre. Season 7’s second runner-up had just arrived at the after-party at downtown L.A.’s J Restaurant and Lounge shortly before the divalicious hour of 1 a.m.

“I’m having a little trouble breathing,” she said. “I was backstage hyperventilating, so during the second act, they had to bring an oxygen tank backstage. It was amazing just to get through tonight. With everybody who was out there, it was very nerve-wracking.”

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“Everybody” also included Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance, “High School Musical 3’s” Monique Coleman, Nia Long, “Paranormal Activity’s” Ashley Palmer, “Lincoln Heights’” Eric Hubbard and America’s newest ‘it’ girl, Betty White. Of course, Mercado had her “Idol” peeps in the audience too – David Hernandez and Jordin Sparks, who tweeted, “Syesha killed it as Deena Jones. Amazing job, girl!”

Mercado sang the role of lead singer Jones, created by Ralph on Broadway on Dec. 20, 1981. Mercado didn’t catch her performance. Nothing personal -- she simply wasn’t on the planet yet.

“I met her opening night [of the national tour] Nov. 22 at the Apollo,” the 23-year-old starlet said. “She’s so beautiful and poised. Those are big shoes to fill.”

At the time, though, they felt pretty small to Ralph, who was nominated for a Tony. But after 1,247 performances dancing in high heels, she was luckier than most. “I didn’t get a bunion like some other folks,” she recalled as she traveled down memory lane at the after-party, “but definitely extra bone growth.”

Life on Broadway changed her life in other ways as well. “The time I spent as an original company member of ‘Dreamgirls’ forever changed who I am as a human being,” said Ralph, who went on to star in “Moesha.” “I saw AIDS take people out of this art forever.”

A portion of the proceeds from the March 9 performance will benefit Ralph’s AIDS charity, the Diva Foundation.

-- Irene Lacher

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