Cheyenne Jackson is good at putting on a character.
Whether he’s getting “All Shook Up” on Broadway, being seduced by Liz Lemon on TV’s “30 Rock,” or fighting against an airplane hijacking in the film “United 93,” he is an actor audiences have come to rely on.
Now, however, he finds himself interested in doing something else on stage. Something that doesn’t involve getting in character.
He wants to be himself.
“I thought maybe I can do this … and actually be myself on stage and express myself through music, but not have a character to hide behind,” Jackson said in telephone interview last month from New York City.
He captured the concert bug from celebrated singer-pianist Michael Feinstein, with whom Jackson performed at Carnegie Hall and recorded an album, “The Power of Two.”
“It started small, then it became its own beast,” Jackson said, “but a beast blessing because I’ve been able to perform at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center … and Disney Hall.”
He’s been doing cabaret shows and concert performances for about three years. On Tuesday, the Spokane-born, Newport-raised Jackson will get on a Spokane stage for the first time since the 20th century was on the wane and sing a show dedicated to the Great American Songbook.
As he’s touring the country, he has prepared three concert lineups. One is a tribute to the “Mad Men” era. Another he calls “Hello, Gorgeous!,” of classic movie music. Then there’s the Songbook show.
“I decided for the Spokane market to do a combination of all three shows because really they’re all in the same milieu,” he said. “I really just relate to the ‘Mad Men’ and James Bond style of music. There are just endless possibilities. So it was up to me to create a show that was linear, that made sense, that was fun to listen to, that was fun to sing, that had a beginning, middle and end.”
It’ll be more than Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé. Backed by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, Jackson also will perform classic Broadway show tunes, a couple originals – he released a solo album last year called “I’m Blue, Skies” – and even a song by Amy Winehouse.
“So it’s not your typical night of Gershwin, even though that would be beautiful,” Jackson said. “It’s my own sensibility, and I come at things a little differently. I do lots of different arrangements – I do a Joni Mitchell song, but it’s arranged by Diana Krall.
“It’s important to me to respect the American Songbook and keep the integrity of it, but there’s a younger generation that doesn’t know this music.”
His aim, then, is to re-imagine these classics while still paying tribute to the original style. “It’s been a nice hybrid,” he said, “and people have responded.”
It is, perhaps, appropriate that Jackson is drawn to this older style of music. “My music teacher in Newport, Mark Caldwell, always said, ‘You were born in the wrong era,’ ” Jackson said. “My voice lended itself to the older style of music and these classic songs.”
From Spokane to Newport to Broadway
Cheyenne David Jackson was born to David and Sherri Jackson on July 12, 1975, at Deaconess Hospital, just a few blocks from the site of Tuesday’s homecoming concert.
He was raised in the Newport area and performed in high school productions of “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Li’l Abner.” After graduating from Newport High School in 1993, he moved to the big city – Spokane – to try his hand at acting.
Among the shows he was in are “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “H.M.S. Pinafore” at Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Kismet” at Spokane Civic Theatre, “Carousel” for the now-defunct Spokane Theatrical Company, and “Godspell” for Rossi Productions out of Coeur d’Alene.
“It was a great time,” he said. “Those were the formative years when you’re growing up and learning how to be on stage and to own your space. Really just the basics.
“Those are the times you learn the most.”
He has fond memories of “Carousel,” directed by Troy Nickerson, in which he played Billy Bigelow, the carnival barker.
“That was really my first big-boy role, I guess” Jackson said. “Where I wasn’t just the younger guy who gets the girl, sings a funny song and leaves.”
Nickerson remembers that, too. He had just started Spokane Theatrical Company, and cast Jackson for that first show, even though the young actor was still a little green.
“Cheyenne was just so talented but he hadn’t had a lot of big roles,” Nickerson said. “Cheyenne was really growing as an actor when he was here. He didn’t want to be ‘Oh I’m nice to look at.’ He worked hard. … He wanted to be an actor.”
Then Jackson’s former director and co-star added, “You always kind of knew he had it. Looks aside, he could flash a smile, but it was still a very genuine quality. And his voice is so beautiful. … I truly wasn’t at all surprised at any success that he’s had.”
For Nickerson’s part, he looks back on the time the two of them co-starred in Civic’s “Kiss Me Kate,” with Nickerson as Fred/Petruchio and Jackson as Bill/Lucentio.
“That’s always a great thing to be in a show with Cheyenne Jackson as a romantic lead, so nobody notices who you are because they’re all too busy looking at Cheyenne Jackson,” Nickerson said with a laugh. “It’s like great, thanks so much.”
By 1999, Jackson had moved to Seattle, where he performed with Civic Light Opera, Village Theater and Fifth Avenue Theatre. In 2002, he headed to New York. It took one audition for him to land a gig on Broadway, as an understudy in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” In 2005, he got his first lead, as Chad, in the Elvis Presley jukebox musical “All Shook Up.”
Looking back, looking forward
Cheyenne Jackson is a good-looking guy. Undeniably. He’s talented. He’s starred on Broadway, television and movies, he’s active in the social causes that concern him and now goes around the country singing songs. Is he, in fact, perfect?
Put that question to him and he laughs. “Hell no,” he said. “But I’m a better man than I was yesterday.”
He’s certainly had some troubles in recent years. His first marriage, to Monte Lapka, ended in divorce after just two years, although Jackson and Lapka, a physicist, had been together for 13 years. Jackson is now engaged to Jason Landau, and they plan to wed in the fall.
Jackson also has come to terms with his drinking and got sober a couple years ago. There was no “rock bottom” moment when he decided he needed to stop drinking, Jackson said. He was highly functioning and his drinking never interfered with his work. “I kept a really good secret,” he said.
He realized, though, that he’d never reach his highest potential if he continued to drink like he was 19. So he did the work he needed to do to stop.
“My work is better,” he said. “I feel better. I look better.”
He also has moved back to the West Coast – partly out of a desire to pursue television work (he’s awaiting word from HBO about a pilot he shot, “Open,” with “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy), partly for the weather, and partly to be closer to family.
His parents, after 40 years in the Northwest, recently moved from Oldtown, Idaho, to Southern California, where Jackson’s siblings live as well. With him now in Los Angeles, for the first time in his adult life, his family is all in one state.
When he says he’s thrilled to be coming back to Spokane for the first time in 16 years, you believe him.
He’s stayed in contact with a few of his old friends, but is looking forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces.
“This is going to be a nice opportunity for me to reconnect,” he said.
He will have one old friend with him on stage: Laura Sable, a fellow schoolmate from Newport High and a frequent co-star on the region’s stages, will join him in a duet.
“I’m going to bring some local flair and flavor, too,” he said.
Seeing the Fox Theater as a stunning, art deco concert hall will be a new experience for Jackson. When he left town, the Fox was in its death throes as a shabby, second-run movie house – and seven years from its restoration.
“I can’t wait,” Jackson said.
As a gay kid from tiny Newport – from the outskirts of Newport, to be precise – it’s not surprising that he needed to leave home to find his way. Still, he credits his parents for giving him an amazing childhood. With four children to raise, there weren’t a lot of extras in the Jackson household, but he learned from his hard-working parents to be kind and to not take things for granted.
“I’ve met everyone I could ever want to meet – I think maybe Oprah’s left. I sang for President Obama and President Clinton in the same night,” he said. “I think that’s what I’ve learned the most is to appreciate these experiences because they’re extraordinary.
“I have an extraordinary life.”