Award-winning actor-performer-singer-songwriter Chester Gregory is about to bring James “Thunder” Early to life at Costa Mesa’s Orange County Performing Arts Center in the National Tour of Dreamgirls.  Coincidentally, the first leg of the Dreamgirls tour happened to be at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theater, the very stage where Chester made his New York debut as Jackie Wilson in The Jackie Wilson Story (a performance which won Chester the Jeff, the AUDELCO, the BTAA and the Black Excellence Awards).  On Broadway, Chester has starred in Hairspray (as Seaweed), in Cry-Baby (as Dupree), and most recently in Tarzan (as Terk). His other credits include the movie version of Hairspray and performing for The King Of Pop. Chester talks about that very special performance—and many more—in this exclusive interview with StageSceneLA.  The triple-threat’s answers make for great reading, so read on!  

Hi Chester.  Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, many of which have been suggested by my good friend Michael Landman-Karny, perhaps your biggest fan in the OC!

My pleasure! Thank you for the opportunity. 

I’m always curious about what first inspired successful performers to pursue a career in entertainment. You graduated with you BFA from Chicago’s Columbia College, but since you’re originally from Gary, Indiana, which happens also to be the home of the Jackson family, I wonder if their success had any influence on your becoming a performer? 

Michael Jackson is the greatest entertainer of all time and I’m honored to call Gary, Indiana my home. When the video for “Thriller” was released, I watched it over and over and taught myself the choreography for the entire video. I felt inspired like never before.  

So where did this inspiration lead you?

One day, at the end of the school year, some students who’d been rehearsing Thriller, performed the routine in our classroom.  But what they didn’t know is that I had secretly been rehearsing at home by myself. So, I jumped up, hopped in the front and did the routine.  The girls screamed! My friends were shocked and I remember everyone smiling. I remember to this day a girl came up to me and said “You’re gonna make it.” She wasn’t in the biz, but her words spoke to me and from that day forward, I was on a mission to inspire others through performance art. 

Have you ever performed professionally in your home town?

Yes, I had the rare opportunity to actually go back to Gary and perform at an event that the city had thrown in Michael’s honor and actually got a standing ovation from the King himself. Meeting him and hearing him say “Great job” was another confirmation that I was on the right track. 

You first got on many people’s radar by starring in several Black Ensemble Theatre shows in Chicago.  How did that come about?

The Black Ensemble was my first professional audition. I auditioned for an all-black version of A Streetcar Named Desire.  I remember a classmate telling me to also sing at the audition.  So I did. I didn’t book that job, but the director remembered my audition a year later and called me in as an immediate replacement. From that point on, I pretty much worked from show to show.

In 2003, you received raves for your New York debut in The Jackie Wilson Story at the legendary Apollo Theater.  Can you talk a bit about your experience working on that show?

It was one of the greatest experiences in my career. Playing Jackie Wilson was a lot of fun but very difficult. I used my complete vocal range in the show every night while dancing and acting.  Jackie Wilson fans had high expectations and I didn’t want to disappoint them. It was an honor to portray a man who paved the way for so many artists and brought inspiration to all.  

Chester with Melba Moore

What was it like performing opposite Melba Moore, who played your mother?

Melba Moore is a legend. I really enjoyed sharing the stage with her. We would pretty much laugh backstage non-stop cause we have the same sense of humor. I hope to work with her again. 

How did it feel to make your Broadway debut in Hairspray as Seaweed? 

Performing on Broadway was a dream come true. 

Was it difficult to transition to Broadway after doing tours and regional theater?

The transition felt natural. Also, I was a huge fan of the show, so I was honored and had the time of my life, every night. To this day, Hairspray is one of my favorite experiences on Broadway. 

Chester in Tarzan (l.) and Cry-Baby (r.)

You received great reviews as Terk in Tarzan.  What was it like working on a Disney show compared to doing non-Disney shows like Hairspray or Cry-Baby?

Through Tarzan, I got the change to work with Phil Collins.  He is the man!  Working with Disney was a great experience too.  Tarzan was a great ice breaker. I hope to transition into doing Film/TV with Disney. 

Chester in Dreamgirls

You’ve both originated roles and taken over roles played first by other performers.  Now you’re getting rave reviews and audience applause for your fresh, very high-energy take on the role of James Thunder Early. How did you go about making this particular part your own?

I went back to the basics. I studied the era. Cleavant Derricks originated this role and won a Tony award. Eddie Murphy did an incredible job as well.  I felt strongly about putting my own stamp on the character.  My interpretation of Jimmy is a James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard gumbo with a punch of Otis Redding.  I am very grateful to our director Robert Longbottom and our creative team to allow me to create Jimmy as I saw him.

What was it like getting to work with Henry Krieger, the composer of Dreamgirls?

Henry is one of the nicest people I have ever met. He always finds the kindest words to say. He has created a masterpiece and it is an honor to work with him.  

It’s great to hear that! What can audiences who’ve seen the movie but are seeing the musical for the first time expect from the stage show that perhaps wasn’t in the film adaptation? 

Well the show was originally intended as a theatrical piece and there’s nothing like experiencing this music and this story LIVE!  This show is so vocally, physically, and emotionally demanding, people often say “I’m coming again! I don’t see how you are able to do this every night!” 

What do you think is the key to Dreamgirls’ continuing success, long after the era of girl groups?

We, the cast, often discuss this. The score is a masterpiece and the story is so rich and well written.  People for all walks of life can relate to this story.


Can you talk a bit about your debut album In Search of High Love?

While performing on Broadway, it was important to me have my own voice musically. Something totally different from Broadway. I’ve had many highs and lows with “Love” and my debut album is my story. My style is old school flavor with a contemporary feel.  VH1 Soul has my remake of “I Only Have Eyes 4 U” in heavy rotation.  

That’s fantastic!  Any plans for another album?

I’m already back in the studio working on a brand new album with a bunch of great producers including “Dot Da Genius” who was Grammy nominated this year for Kid Cudi’s record. 

I know you have donated your time and artistry in support of several causes, most notably AIDS and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Can you tell us about your the organizations and causes that you have worked so hard to support?

I actually just did a great event in Seattle for Autism at the University of Tacoma.  My son is in the Autistic spectrum and it’s important to me not only as a parent, but as a person who is blessed with the ability to reach a large audience to make sure people are educated with facts.  With all charities I work with, it’s important that we raise awareness for various causes in need.  Melba Moore and I did a great awareness event for “The Doe Fund”.  They are an unparalleled organization that works to not only get the homeless men off the street, but to help these men re-recognize their own self worth and help integrate them into the work place and society—to end the vicious cycle we create for the homeless and the formerly incarcerated.

Thanks so much, Chester, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions. I for one can’t wait to be there for Opening Night of Dreamgirls!

Thank you again, it  was my pleasure! I greatly appreciate your support! Please keep in touch, I’m at

Will do!!

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