Exclusive: Actress Jennifer Blake on playing Mindy McCready in Off-Broadway musical

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Actress Jennifer Blake portrays the late country singer Mindy McCready in an Off-Broadway musical called

Following a string of chart hits, most notably "Guys Do It All the Time" and "10 Thousand Angels," country singer Mindy McCready became a regular in the tabloids. Her very troubled personal life — she attempted suicide on several different occasions before succumbing to a self-inflicted gun-shot wound in early 2013 — often surpassed her soulful blend of pop and country. While her legacy leaves a haunting reminder of the devastating effects of depression and mental health, her songbook remains a constant inspiration to younger generations. For actress and producer Jennifer Blake, that meant taking on the biggest role of her burgeoning career.

Inspired by McCready’s music, ambition and desire to be heard, Blake created and wrote a musical dedicated to the late singer. It was first mounted back in 2015 but later made its arrival Off-Broadway last month for a brief run at the Triad. "It’s a dream come true to be able to realize a run in New York," Blake shares exclusively with AXS.com over a recent phone call. Simply titled McCready, the musical chronicles the deep-seated trauma and issues bubbling just beneath the surface for most of McCready’s life. Blake hopes the biggest takeaway for fans who’ve seen the production is empathy. "Take a minute before you judge. Given the circumstances in other people’s lives, would you make those same choices in that same pressure cooker of a life? You sit back and go ‘oh, I would never do that.’ You could think Mindy just made a ton of bad choices, but you also aren’t living her life. It’s her history," Blake says.

Blake collaborated with Jon Bernstein on the script, digging into hours and hours of online research to get every single detail correct. The toughest part was "trying to find out what was truth or fiction," she says. "There’s a lot of quotes of herself saying how her public persona was nowhere near how she truly was. Trying to decipher what was tabloid junk, too, was difficult. I talked to a few people who knew her; someone who knew her very, very well and other fans to get their perspective of her and any interactions they had with her. Across the board, people talked about how warm and lovely she was and spent time with each fan. She was welcoming to people. She’d have spaghetti dinners and was very maternal."

"We worked really hard on staying true to who she was. Our director Robert Glen Decker had worked with each of us [in the cast] individually and then together to really maintain the grounded reality that is part of the story. It’s more of a non-musical. I’ve had so many friends come to it who are otherwise are not into musical and they straight up told me after ‘wow.’ It was more of a concert or a country show than your standard, proscenium Broadway musical."

Blake talks in-depth about the role, plans to tour the show nationwide, favorite McCready songs and more in our exclusive Q&A session. Read below:

You came up with the idea because people always say you look like her?

I’ve gotten it a few times in the past. It’s our common features. I was really looking to sing and create my own thing. I didn’t even know if it would be in the concept of a concert or not. I really wanted to do a musical because I went to Boston Conservatory for musical theatre. I was in a program in high school. Musical theatre has always been my #1 love. I really missed it. I had a few ideas floating around. Then, my collaborator Jon was pretty fast and furious with the research and finding out the details of her life, the music and the men who influenced her decisions.

How early in this process did you know you had something special?

I wanna say right away. I started looking at the chronology of her songs and titles and going "when this happened at this point in her life, this song was a hit." You look at them side-by-side, and my eyes got big. ‘Oh, this could totally be a musical. It could have a running story.’

Did the other casting (of Robert Hardin, Craig Umhoefer, Michael Ursu and Zack Cosby) come together pretty easily?

That was a process. In the scope of things, it was rather quick. In the middle of it, it was like ‘how are we ever going to find this such-and-such character.’ It does take a special combination of skills and physical attributes and how they talk. I feel really lucky with the four guys I was able to find and cast. They all very much owned the characters.

How did you physically/vocally step into who Mindy McCready was?

I’m not really doing an imitation. Her voice was amazing. I don’t want to try to do that. I feel like you just fail if you try to do it exactly like her. That being said, I had listened to all of her albums a million times and ate it up. I don’t copy her, but I did absorb all of it so maybe there’s some similarities going on — especially in the lilts of her accent. I’m originally from Montgomery, Alabama, and she’s from Fort Myers. By way of Nashville, there’s other influences there with her accent being a little bit different from mine. There’s a cry in her voice.

How do you personally connect to her story?

Personally, bit by bit. We are both from small southern towns. We both grew up singing since we were like three and grew up singing in the church. Always performing in some way, shape or form — had a little bit of not so great stuff in her family unit. I have similarities with that. Ultimately, her ambition, which I also have.

What is your favorite song to perform in the show?

It changes. There’s a country lullaby we do called "By Her Side." It’s a trio. Our show is really paired down. It’s all acoustic. It’s all arrangements I’ve done working with Brady Harris, who was the first musical director, and our current musical director. It was the combination of the three of us working things out — I’m really proud of that. We have a cajon, a drum you can hold (it looks like a box) and sit on, and a guitar. We worked out harmonies which are really tight.

Why is the show acoustic?

I wanted it to be a show we could pick up and take anywhere — a street corner, the roof, a small theatre and large one. The more intimate, the better. Not to have to rely on large sets or a lot of tech. I also didn’t want to have to concede to any kind of thing. So, you go, "OK, well, we can’t do that venue, we all have to use their stuff." That would be too much of a hustle and a heartbreak. It really gives more honesty to the sound. That’s why I really loved doing it at the Triad. There’s something about that space that really, really worked.

What were some of the lessons you learned about yourself and music through this show?

I co-created, co-wrote, co-produced, co-starred. So, I’m wearing all the hats. When we got closer and closer to the performance, I thought, "what am I doing?" I’m so used to being able to fall back on comedy. It’s a tornado of a show, thematically. That lesson would be…to trust myself that I could really go for it. I can’t half-ass it. It takes a lot of confidence to create your own thing and have it really loved by audiences that may not have known anything about her story or may not have thought they liked country music. They’ll have songs stuck in their head from the show. I’m such a music fan. Music is like a limb. That shows in the it, too, in how we use the musicians and let them shine.

Having grown up in the south, how familiar were you with country music?

I rebelled against it. I was much more "ugh, that’s on again?!" It was everywhere. I did the typical teenage angsty thing. I got really into MTV’s "120 Minutes" that would come on late at night, with Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. I got super opinionated about who I liked and who was good and who wasn’t. That was my focus. I was very aware of mainstream people and their hits, though.

If you could create and star in another musical about a country star, who would it be?

The first person who comes to mind is Reba. She’s a force to be reckoned with. I learned more about her than I ever knew. Mindy really idolized her. I love her work ethic. She was in no way a diva on her way up. She’d sing in bowling alleys and gas stations, any place that would have some kind of audience.

What are your plans to take this musical on the road?

I’d love to go down South where all my family lives. There are a lot of ‘90s country fans, in particular. Also, it’s a really strong theatrical hour and 10 minutes. Nashville is ideal. There are a couple theatres I’ve looked at there. I want it to be a theatre-bar setup, not a typical proscenium stage. I really want to challenge myself and the cast with the space. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, all around Tennessee. I think it would do really well.

Would you ever record a country album?

I’ve talked about that with my musical director. I already know I want to call it ‘McCready Sessions.’ We write our own music. That’s the awesome part of this show, too. A lot of times, the guys have been a part other bands.

What is your favorite Mindy McCready song?

I love "Guys Do It All the Time." It’s got such attitude. I lover her cover of Linda Ronstadt’s "Long, Long Time," too. I find myself listening to that over and over. "Ten Thousand Angels" is good.

Stay tuned to AXS.com for any and all updates.