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By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski | January 4, 2022

Growing up in the MTV era, Craig Winberry was inspired by George Michael’s looks, moves, attitude and music.

“He was not afraid to take risks and had an air of confidence and left a legacy,” Winberry says.

The Piggott, Arkansas native is now starring as the late singer in “The Life and Music of George Michael,” which comes to the Mesa Arts Center’s Ikeda Theater on Sunday, January 23.

“Now that people are venturing out to concerts and shows, I wanted to be a part of that,” Winberry says, giving an additional reason for joining the show.

“I wanted to be a part of that. It’s a great opportunity to get back out. I’m happy to hit the road and share his legacy across America.”

The concert-style show follows Michael’s career through his hits, including those from Wham! and his solo career.

“When I was presented this wonderful opportunity, I was prepared,” he says. “Over the years as a singer, I had been singing some of George’s tracks like ‘Careless Whisper’ and his own spin on Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love,’ which was hugely popular.

“What I have found challenging was the overall lyrical content—the emotions and where George was in his life. It’s been so fascinating. Through the beginning of his career, the middle and up to his unfortunate death, to see the growth of a gay man coming out of the closet and standing in his truth was amazing.”

Singing “Jesus to a Child” and learning of the backstory brought Winberry to tears. The song is a tribute to Michael’s Brazilian lover Anselmo Feleppa, whom the singer met while performing in Rio de Janeiro in 1991. Two years later, Feleppa died from an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage. During his grieving, Michael penned “Jesus to a Child” in about an hour.

“It’s sad understanding Anselmo’s tragic death from HIV/AIDS and George taking his pain and sorrow and channeling it into art,” he says. “When you understand what the song was about and what he was going through, it’s tragic. It’s a very intimate story that George was sharing with us.”

Winberry’s love affair with performing began at an early age when he took part in his hometown school’s production of “South Pacific.”

From that point on, he knew there would always be a Broadway stage in his future. He expanded on that as actor, singer and songwriter, and in television, film and live theater after moving to NYC eight years ago.

“When I made that choice, I was becoming an entertainer later in life,” he says about the move in his 30s. “I did it differently. I got married and raised kids then when we moved to New York, I decided to jump headfirst into the arts and storytelling. I’m so happy that I did.

“It was scary at first, but I’ve had an amazing support system around me. I looked at people like George and he was literally the only one of his generation who was out and open. He was closeted at the beginning of his career. I see his life and legacy as a guiding light to standing your truth.”

Before the pandemic in 2019, Winberry was performing with Abby Payne presents “Christmas Spirits: Neat Edition” at Feinstein’s 54/Below on 54th Street in New York City. He held “random TV jobs,” but was mostly focusing on live entertainment.

“New York City is the holy grail of comedy cellars and cabarets,” he says. “Broadway and off-Broadway, that’s where my life has been.”

The Life and Music of George Michael

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, January 23

WHERE: Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main Street, Mesa

COST: $38

INFO: 480-644-6500, mesaartscenter.com

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