James Vincent Meredith plays an Ugandan village elder in "Book of Mormon" with Syesha Mercado. Courtesy Joan Marcus

When American Idol runner-up Syesha Mercado found out at Christmastime she was the Secret Santa for her fellow Book of Mormon actor James Vincent Meredith, she bought him a bottle of his favorite liquor, Whiskey Rye, along with a shiny new flask.

“He loved it so much that he got his Secret Santa chocolate and thanked his anonymous Secret Santa profusely,” said Mercado. “But I’m allergic to chocolate!”

Meredith, an Oak Park resident, will find out when he reads this that Mercado not only was his Secret Santa, but that she also has horrible food allergies and had to skip his treats. But he’ll also find out that Mercado, who plays his daughter in the wildly-popular, Tony Award-winning hit musical, thinks he is an incredibly talented actor and a true inspiration to work with.

“Wow, James is so professional,” said Mercado, who was the third-place finalist on seventh season of American Idol. “He is a great representation of what professional is. The way he carries himself backstage, I learned a lot from him.

“His characters are so strong,” she added. “He’s very focused, so inspiring, and it really shows.”

In The Book of Mormon, which has been wowing crowds and was recently extended through Sept. 8 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. in the Loop, Meredith plays Mafala Hatimbi, father of the story’s heroine (Mercado) and patriarch of the Ugandan village where a couple of comical Mormon elders end up. Although Meredith was “a bit averse to musicals” and had only starred in one prior to that (The King and I) his agent wisely persuaded him that Mormon was a good opportunity.

“I’m a karaoke guy rather than a singer,” said Meredith, who was told they didn’t need a legit singer — they needed a storyteller and a legit actor who maybe could hold a note. “But I thought, maybe I’ll go in. These guys (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the Emmy Award-winning creators of the animated TV series, South Park, who also wrote Mormon) are the best of the best.”

It’s not the first time that Meredith, 41, has worked with the best of the best. In fact, he’s been doing that since seventh grade, when his “wonderful” acting teacher suggested he attend the Piven Theatre Workshop.

“I spoke to Joyce Piven,” said Meredith, who is also a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member. “As we talked, I looked around and saw John Cusack walk by, but I wasn’t sure, but it could be. Joyce looked up and nodded and I thought, wow, I gotta go here.”

Since then, Meredith has been working religiously (pardon the Mormon pun). He has appeared on and off Broadway, and in several TV shows, including ER, Law and Order SVU, Chicago Code, two “great seasons” of Boss, with Kelsey Grammer, and Prison Break, where he had a one liner: “They’re ready for you, Madame Vice President.”

These days, when he’s not rocking the theater stage, Meredith can be found walking around Oak Park eyeing restaurants, such as Seven Ocean, an Asian/Thai place he’s dying to check out.

He has a contract with Mormon through the end of this year, “and we’ll see if things progress beyond that.” Meanwhile, he’s going with the flow of starring in a mega-hit, right here in Chi-town.

“I’m pinching myself,” said Meredith, whose wife, Catherine Glick, grew up in the village and attended St. Edmund and Oak Park and River Forest High School.

“I know I’m lucky. A lot of Chicago actors would love to be in this position,” he said. “So I thank God I actually got this gig.”

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