A Day in the Life of Isaiah Mercado as Bruno Mars and Michael Jackson
Some pop, rock, R&B and country music stars have real staying power, even after they’ve moved on to rock ‘n’ heaven–think Elvis, The Blues Brothers, Michael Jackson, Prince. But even living legends can be hard to catch in live performance. When was the last time you saw Dolly Parton or Luke Bryan? No theater group in the world has done a better job of keeping these “legends” alive and at the peak of their careers through live tribute performance than Legends in Concert. These are not lip-sync performers, but singers that use their own natural singing voices accompanied by a live band, a stage full of dancers, and special audio/video and lighting effects to put on a dazzling performance.
Long before the current trend of touring tribute acts appeared to dominate the midsize theater and club world in the last decade or so, Legends in Concert was there first as the original — except, perhaps, for Beatlemania (1977)— and is still expanding its operation, with its sights on a global presence. Locally, the Myrtle Beach Legends in Concert theater, one of some 12 permanent and seasonal homes for the tribute shows, has been hosting appreciative fans for nearly 30 years; first at a venue in Surfside Beach and, second, at the current Broadway at the Beach location for the past 11 years.
With a rotation of stars past and present that changes quarterly, we thought following one of their most beloved cast members, Isaiah Mercado (Michael Jackson and Bruno Mars) for the better part of a work day might shed some light on just what goes in to all these performances—and what it takes to be a legend.
Mercado is 36, but looks much younger. Like the legends he’s paying tribute to, he’s thin, athletic and skilled as a singer, dancer and multi-instrumentalist. Even out of makeup, he has a Bruno Mars/Jackson-esque look. He arrives at the theater to rehearse with the band and crew two days prior to the mid-winter reopening of the theater in February. He’s been with Legends for 12 years performing as Michael Jackson, and for the past few years as Bruno Mars. We caught up with him after rehearsal and before opening night.
During the first COVID shutdown, the theater closed and remained closed for 53 weeks, something unprecedented in the 39-year-old company’s history. Legends in Concert opened in Las Vegas in 1983 and grew to also include resort and casino hotspots around the U.S., including Hawaii, and even has a permanent presence on Norwegian Cruise Lines. The company is considering international destinations as well.
“Coming back after more than a year was tough,” admits Mercado, recalling the first reopening last summer, “but it’s kind of like riding a bike. You get your confidence back and just make it happen.”
Mercado, as a part of his contract, is supplied with a condo near the Myrtle Beach theater that is used as his residence during his active contract periods. His permanent home is in the upstate of South Carolina near Greenville, where his 3-year-old daughter, Dolce, lives with her mother.
“It’s not fun being away from her and I miss her so much,” says Mercado, “but I keep working to give her the things she needs and provide for my family.”
He’s able to travel the three-and-a-half hours home every other weekend.
“I’m an army brat,” he says, born at Fort Bragg, N.C. before moving to the greater Chicago area. “I grew up in Gary, Indiana, as a sheltered kid. When I was 13 and in the middle school show choir, the director asked me to work on this song by Michael Jackson called ‘Thriller.’ I swear I had never heard of Michael Jackson or that song, but I watched the video, learned a few moves and performed it. Then, I was invited to do it at a birthday party, then another event and, before long. I was traveling on weekends to do full Michael Jackson shows.”
Both of his parents have seen him in the Legends productions and he says they are proud of his achievements in showbiz, even if they originally sheltered him from certain elements of that lifestyle. He finished high school, went to college and eventually found his way to Las Vegas, and, in, 2009 to Legends in Concert, but not before learning a few other skills he says come in handy to this day.
“In my down time or between contracts, I work on cars, do plumbing and electrical, that kind of thing,” he says. “I’m a handy man and I love fixing, creating and building with my own hands.”
Though there are always six-to-ten Michael Jacksons in the greater Legends stable, Mercado is currently the only Bruno Mars, and the only cast member to pull double duty. He is also a multi-instrumentalist, who writes his own music.
“It’s absolutely a goal of mine to get my original music out there,” he says.
Breaking for lunch before an afternoon rehearsal, Mercado says his body and voice are taxed.
“There’s a lot of singing and dancing, and this stuff is not easy. Both Michael and Bruno have naturally higher-pitched voices than mine, so it’s stressful, but I’ve learned to manage it.”
After a final technical run and work on a few stage notes, the day is over. He says he usually enjoys relaxing at his Myrtle Beach condo after work, spending his time taking a shower, playing video games and working on his music.
The call time is 6:30 for the cast to prepare for a show that begins at 7:30.
“I like to get here a bit early and work on the makeup. There’s a lot to it. Michael, especially, requires a lot of makeup and a wig,” he says.
In his dressing room, one he shares with the other cast members who’ve yet to arrive, he begins the process of transforming himself from Isaiah Mercado into Michael Jackson, and then later in the show, Bruno Mars.
The 600-seat theater is perfectly sized for optimal viewing from almost anywhere. It’s housed in what was previously Club Kryptonite, and before that, the All-Star Café. For February, the crowd is large—not quite a sell-out, but headed in that direction. Beer, wine and hard seltzer, along with snacks and soft drinks, are sold, and certain patrons sit in small semi-circular booths with tables. The crowd is made up of a wide mix, from a few young children to mostly middle-aged men and women to older patrons, who each paid between $48-58 per seat. The house lights dim, the announcer’s booming voice welcomes the guests, the band takes its place and then… lights up, the show starts.
Over the next 40 minutes in Act I, starting with early Elvis (the black, tight leather outfit Elvis of the 50s and 60s), then Luke Bryan, The Blues Brothers and Mercado as Michael Jackson. The King of Pop is a mainstay of the Legends experience and a clear crowd favorite.
Mercado spins, moonwalks, and sings and dances while videos of the real Michael Jackson play on big screens above the stage. It’s great fun to let your eyes roam between the video version of the real artist while the tribute artist matches, sometimes move-for-move, the same song with the same outfits. Mercado breaks between songs and enjoys a comfortable, practiced patter with the audience, even mimicking Jackson’s own unusual speaking voice; he’s all in for the part. For those of us who never got to see Jackson perform live, this is as close as we’re likely to ever get.
Mercado, the band and the dancers/backup singers perform “Beat It,” a medley of Jackson Five hits, “Human Nature” and “Thriller,” complete with zombies and all the classic moves Mercado has been practicing and perfecting since that middle school show choir performance some 23 years earlier.
The brief 15-minute intermission lets patrons stretch, use the facilities, and reload on snacks and drinks.
Lights down and the second half of the show begins. More Legends take the stage, including a return from Elvis, though he’s now the Vegas white jumpsuit version, ripping through a set of the King’s later hits. All the performers manage to connect with the audience; the Luke Bryan character says, “Hi, I’m Dolly Parton,” as if to let us know “we’re all in on the simulation; let’s have a little fun and not take ourselves too seriously.”
A new Legend appears on stage for the first time that evening, the “24K Magic” superstar, Bruno Mars. In a new wig with the Michael Jackson makeup removed, Mercado has reinvented his persona, matching all the big choreographed dance moves, the singing, and even the speech patterns for which Mars is so famous. The actual superstar, Bruno Mars, knows a thing or two about tributes, as he started out as a six-year-old Tiny Elvis before moving on to impersonate Michael Jackson. He even worked very briefly for Legends as a dancer before fame took him to new heights.
Mercado and his daughter, Dolce, spend some quality daddy/daughter time.
The crowd eats up “Uptown Funk” and a few additional Mars hits before a grand finale with all the Legends on stage singing one final farewell song together to a standing ovation.
I don’t see Mercado after the show, as he’s changing and looking forward to some much-deserved rest at the condo. After all, there’s another show the next night, and the audience will expect a legendary performance.
Contact Legends in Concert for updated show schedules by calling the box office at (800) 960-7469 or visiting Legends at legendsinconcert.com