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Davis Gaines' Shows Will Not Be Your Standards-Issue Evenings

Cabaret* The former man in the mask plans no light banter in O.C. shows, preferring to explore the idea of music as a mirror to profound feelings.

November 14, 2001|BY MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Davis Gaines has explored both poles on the globe of contemporary musical theater and found career hot spots in each.

At one end of the map was his turn as the obsessed, demonic title character in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera."

Ten years after his 1991 debut as the Phantom, the role that made his name, Gaines moved from the crowd-pleasing spectacle of Webber to the subtleties of Stephen Sondheim. He went from that dark, disfigured, masked Svengali, the Phantom, to a good-hearted, handsome and naive sailor boy--Anthony Hope, the lone innocent in Sondheim's grim gorefest, "Sweeney Todd."

Gaines figures that more than 5 million ticket-holders saw him as the Phantom (a role he performed more than 2,000 times after taking over from its originator, Michael Crawford, and Crawford's successor, Robert Guillaume). His recent turn in a 20th anniversary revival of "Sweeney Todd" also reached millions when PBS broadcast a taped performance of the stripped-down, concert-style production on Halloween night.

Demons and innocents, Webber and Sondheim--Gaines says he is game for all of it. "I go where the job is," he said over the phone last week from his Hollywood Hills home.

His next job is a four-night stand as a cabaret singer, starting Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The approach figures to be very different from what he has done before and from what most cabaret singers attempt.

There will be no Webber or Sondheim. There will be some Sammy Cahn--Gaines' most recent album, "All My Tomorrows," is a tribute to the lyricist--but he will keep away from standards. Instead, Gaines aims to showcase lesser-known contemporary composers, including John Bucchino, Jason Robert Browne and William Finn.

The song arrangements will also be off-center. Accompanying Gaines' lyric baritone will be pianist Carol Anderson and a second musician playing a bevy of chimes, woodblocks, bongos and other percussion instruments. Call it "The Lion King"-ization of cabaret: Gaines said he and Anderson, associate conductor of the Los Angeles production of that percussion-heavy show, decided to give his cabaret program some different rhythms.

The show may have a "Lion King" connection, but its mood will not be Disney-like. Gaines plans no light patter, no comic songs. He wants to explore the idea of music as a mirror to profound feelings.

"The music I'm using is so emotional and personal, and there are some dark places in this show, and cynical places," said the self-described loner, who lives alone and says he favors quiet evenings with a few friends to the show-biz party whirl. "I try to include hopeful and romantic things as well. It's a more thoughtful, serious evening than I would normally do."

Gaines, 42, grew up in Orlando, Fla. He always wanted to be an actor, and he enrolled in the theater program at Florida State University. The decision may have made him something of a black sheep in his family--not because they frowned on show business but because his father and two sisters went to Florida State's archrival, the University of Florida, which is in Gainesville, a city named for one of the family's ancestors.

After college, he landed in New York City and got his first gig on Broadway in 1982, as a member of the chorus in a revival of "Camelot" starring Richard Burton. Gaines says he never took a singing lesson until the mid-1980s, when, mainly because some of his friends were doing it, he entered a singing contest in which the prize was several thousand dollars' worth of vocal coaching.

Gaines' contest song was "Everybody Says Don't," a Sondheim number he had been using in his auditions. That choice became somewhat traumatic when he learned that Sondheim himself would be attending the contest finals in Washington, D.C.

"I was terrified," said Gaines, who nevertheless won. He says that the prize money became crucial: Tony McDowell, the voice teacher he hired, turned him from a belter to a knowledgeable singer capable of shifting smoothly through his wide vocal range--and capable of doing those 2,000-plus turns as the Phantom without physical wear or mishap.

"I don't open my mouth now [without] thinking, 'How would Tony approach this?'" Gaines said of McDowell, who died of cancer several years ago.

Gaines says he was lucky to find other important mentors along the way. When George Abbott, the legendary director-producer, staged a revival of "Damn Yankees" in New Jersey during the late 1980s (Abbott was 99 at the time), he picked Gaines to play the lead role of Joe Hardy. That brought Gaines to the attention of Abbott's protege, director Hal Prince, who cast Gaines in "The Phantom of the Opera," first as the Phantom's rival, Rauol, and then as the masked man himself.

Gaines has played the role more than any other actor; he says he kept up his interest by changing his take on the Phantom over time, and by trying little variations nightly.

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