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Two Legends Are Portrayed in One-Man Shows at CSUN That Aim for Honor, Honesty As Big as Life : Solo Voice

Singer, actor Charles GaVoian found himself suited to play celebrated tenor Mario Lanza, whose life ended tragically.


There was only one Mario Lanza, and there is only one Charles GaVoian. Charles who?

Lanza, of course, was the great tenor / matinee idol who first inspired Placido Domingo--and was crowned the "greatest voice of the century" by no less a figure than conductor Arturo Toscanini. The handsome, charismatic singer--the first to cross over from the opera world to the pop world--died in 1959 at the age of 39, either the victim of an excessive lifestyle or a mafia hit, depending on whom you believe.

GaVoian (Guh-VOY-en) is the L.A.-born actor and tenor who has brought Lanza back, at least in spirit, with a critically hailed self-penned one-man stage show, "The Mario Lanza Story," which arrives at the CSUN Performing Arts Center on Sunday for two performances. (Part of the Evans & Associates' "Show of the Month" series.)

"I was first drawn to Mario because of his fantastic voice, and then in the movies, he played these really likable, down-to-earth characters," said GaVoian, a veteran of the renowned USC Opera Workshop and former owner of a trucking company. "I saw myself as this kind of blue-collar guy, like him. I think I just related to him--better than I could to a regular opera singer."

Over the decades, there have been myriad tribute concerts to Lanza--by fine tenors (including the celebrated Three) and pretenders--to say nothing of a parade of never-filmed movie scripts based on the man's tragic life. GaVoian's effort is the only Lanza tribute to have seriously succeeded--playing to sellout audiences at the Beverly Hills Playhouse for over a year, garnering (among other accolades) the Drama-Logue award for best theatrical presentation of 1995. GaVoian is quick to credit the man he portrays.

"I feel great that they're coming to see Mario. If it wasn't for him, no one would have known who I was!"

Lanza's appeal remains huge. His recordings are still healthy sellers (and new archival recordings have popped up); there are Lanza fan clubs all over the world, and a popular annual ball is hosted by the Mario Lanza Society in his hometown of Philadelphia. Carreras and Domingo have recorded CD and / or video tributes to the tenor. (Domingo narrates the video documentary "Mario Lanza: the American Caruso.")

"The popularity is due to a combination of a lot of things," GaVoian said. "Certainly there is that astonishing voice and movie-star quality. But he died so young--it's the same kind of thing you find with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. People have such interest. And Lanza not only influenced the Three Tenors [Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras], but a whole generation of singers. That name still stirs something in people. It still draws."

What about those rumors--which recently surfaced in the tabloids again--that Lanza was murdered in a Rome hospital after having inadvertently offended a mafia chieftain?

"A lot of people (including some Lanza family and friends) claim it's true," said GaVoian. "His butler and nurse disappeared when he died. That doesn't sound like coincidence to me. And it's known he had some heated arguments with mobsters."

To answer the key question here--yes, GaVoian can sing. In the "flattering part" of his 40s, he is a very able tenor. No, he does not presume to be thought of in the same way as Lanza. But between the disarming acting and muscular, from-the-heart renditions of 11 songs and arias identified with Lanza (from "Be My Love" and "Because You're Mine" to "Vesti la Giubba" and "E Lucevan le Stelle"), "The Mario Lanza Story" charmingly and touchingly evokes Lanza--so say critics and die-hard Lanza-philes.

GaVoian has also pleased arguably the toughest audience of all--Lanza's children, who have seen and enjoyed the play. So approving was Mario's son, Damon Lanza, that he now co-hosts a "Mario Lanza Story" pre-performance question-and-answer session and trivia contest with longtime Lanza family friend Bob Dolfi.

"Not only has Charles captured the many years of my father's turbulent life," said Damon Lanza, "but he has very masterfully presented it."

Adds Dolfi: "I've been friends with the Lanza family for over 32 years. I've sat in the family home and listened to tenors coming by, wanting to do tributes to Mario, and it's always the same--they want to promote themselves. Charles is not that way. You can see the love behind it."

Oddly, although GaVoian worked for years on a biographical Lanza movie script, it wasn't until fairly recently--at the suggestion of a friend--that he got the idea to adapt his script for stage and take on the role himself. After a ton of research--including talks with Lanza's trainer, biographer and close friend Terry Robinson (coincidentally a friend of GaVoian's since youth)--he finished a script in 1994. Following some polishing by writer Joe Fraley, "The Mario Lanza Story" debuted to what GaVoian called "curious" audiences.

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