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Locally raised showman hitting on all cylinders

Fri., Nov. 27, 2009

You don’t need an astrologist to figure this out: The stars and planets lined up perfectly for Cheyenne Jackson this month. This actor-singer from Newport, Wash., has been a hot commodity in November for multiple reasons:

• He made his debut two weeks ago as a recurring character on NBC’s “30 Rock” with Tina Fey.

• His latest musical, “Finian’s Rainbow,” opened on Broadway to across-the-board excellent reviews.

• His new duet CD with Michael Feinstein, “The Power of Two,” was released and is selling briskly.

• He appeared on the “Today” show and “The View” and was featured in The New York Times.

And how is Jackson, who learned his craft on Spokane stages, managing all of this good fortune?

“Truly, I am so exhausted,” he said, by phone from New York during a rare break. “But the thing that keeps me going is that I’m realizing: This is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Then he quoted a line he attributed to actor Hal Holbrook: “I’ve been up and I’ve been down. Up is better.”

“So I’m enjoying the upswing,” said Jackson.

Yet he did admit that he didn’t exactly plan all of this to happen simultaneously.

“To do eight shows a week on Broadway takes all of your focus, all of your energy, all of your health, all of your concentration,” said Jackson. “And most people in Broadway shows sleep until 11 a.m. or noon.

“And now, I have to get up at 6:30 or 7 a.m., or whatever my call is (for ‘30 Rock’). But I think I’ve made it through the rough part. If I happen to have a day where I have only one show at night, it feels like a vacation.”

The “30 Rock” opportunity was what he calls “one of those dream instances.”

Fey had seen Jackson in the Broadway musical “Xanadu” and in “Damn Yankees,” in which he co-starred with “30 Rock’s” Jane Krakowski. So Fey set up a meeting and said, “Cheyenne, I just want to gauge your interest in this.”

“So I said, ‘Well, Tina Fey, my interest is high,’ ” said Jackson, laughing.

That’s how he got the part of Danny, the new cast member of Liz Lemon’s fictional TV show.

Jackson doesn’t know exactly how long his character will last, but he thinks he’ll probably appear on every other show at least through the end of the season. On the day of this interview last week, he was filming his fourth episode.

“The character has a very interesting, fun arc,” said Jackson. “They thrive on the element of surprise (at ‘30 Rock’) and I won’t give a thing away.

“But it’s a really, really fun character to play. I’m just thrilled that Tina thinks I’m funny and thinks I have some timing.”

Broadway audiences and theater critics have known that for a long time – and they also know he has excellent vocal skills.

After a couple of replacement roles in Elton John’s “Aida” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Jackson was cast in the lead of the Elvis musical “All Shook Up” in 2005 and the campy “Xanadu” in 2007. He was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for best actor in a musical for that performance.

And now, critics have praised his performance as Woody in the revival of the great 1940s musical “Finian’s Rainbow.” The Associated Press called him “vocally potent” and “Broadway’s leading man of choice.”

Jackson also has a new recording career, thanks to his collaboration with Manhattan’s reigning cabaret king, Michael Feinstein. They put together a duet cabaret show at Feinstein’s club last spring.

“It was really kind of a hot ticket,” said Jackson. “And when it was over, I thought, ‘You know what? We put so much time, energy and money into writing this show, let’s record it.’ ”

Feinstein, who has plenty of Grammys under his belt, liked the idea.

“I thought, ‘You know, you might as well pair with somebody who knows what they’re doing,’ ” said Jackson. “You might as well learn from the best.

“I’m no dum-dum. I surround myself with people who know what they’re doing.”

Jackson occasionally makes it back home to see his parents, David and Sherri Jackson, who live in Oldtown, Idaho (right across the border from Newport).

“They’ve seen every show I’ve ever done in New York,” he said. “They’ve been my No. 1 fans ever since ‘Anything Goes’ at the Spokane Civic Theatre.”

That was in 1994, when he was only 18.

His first-ever critical notice called him “a real find as a leading man for the Civic.”

If this were a normal year, he’d be heading back to Oldtown or to Minnesota for Christmas.

“My partner, Monte, and I have been together over nine years now, so we either go to my parents’ house or his parents’ house,” said Jackson. “He’s from Brainerd, Minn.”

But Jackson won’t be able to make either one this Christmas. He’ll be putting in long days on “Finian’s Rainbow” and “30 Rock.”

“It’s really been a challenge, to be quite honest,” he said. “But one I’m happily doing.”

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