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Las Vegas Loves Who?

Whatever it is he does, Danny Gans does it well enough to sell out a theater named after him. Only here.

July 28, 2002|PAUL BROWNFIELD

LAS VEGAS — Five nights a week, just after 8 p.m., Danny Gans begins the same sprint. He takes the stage in the Danny Gans Theatre at the Mirage hotel and casino and transforms himself from a nobody, the guy you haven't heard of, into the $10-million-a-year Vegas headliner that he knows himself to be.

He becomes an unambiguously loved, new-millennium Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr.--the "Entertainer of the Year," as Gans is billed on the Strip.

He is "Entertainer of the Year" as immutable fact, as if it doesn't matter what year we're in.

Much about Gans' daily life feeds into this mantra, this constant psyche job. In addition to the workouts and the dieting, Gans has certain rituals for the protection of his voice. He carries bottled water like an extra appendage and consults the best throat men in the desert. He even considered having his family learn sign language so that he could remain a husband and father without having to use his vocal cords.

What is he? Gans is an impressionist with a seven-piece band, but if he was only that, he wouldn't be selling out his 1,265-seat theater, at times weeks in advance, at $80 to $100 a ticket. People come because of the tremendous word-of-mouth Gans has generated, and because his advertising on the Strip is inescapable--the face and the name on every passing cab roof like a CNN news crawl.

But they also come because Gans has a peculiar talent: He is good at sounding like other people, or at least appearing to sound like other people. Lots and lots of them.

On the Strip, tribute shows abound. What is different about Gans is his packaging: He is not just Frank and Sammy and Dean, but Frank and Sammy and Dean and, say, Hootie & the Blowfish. And Macy Gray. And Johnny Mathis. And Creed (if it's a Creed kind of night). And Forrest Gump. He is whomever you need him to be, giving and giving, and usually no longer than 30 seconds or a minute.

In the course of his show, Gans does 50 or 60 voices, mostly of singers. It is impersonation not as satire but as a breathtaking achievement--entertainers of the last 50 years put in a blender and presented as a mass-culture smoothie.

Sure, Sinatra was Sinatra. But Gans is Sinatra doing "Hakuna Matata" from "The Lion King."

Gans just doesn't see himself as an impressionist. It fails to evoke what he does, he feels. He will tell you that he is taking the audience on an emotional journey. When he does a dramatic reading of Al Pacino's climactic speech in "Scent of a Woman," the audience, properly stirred, cheers. When he does Clinton, post-Monica, singing the Gloria Gaynor hit "I Will Survive," they laugh. When he does Henry Fonda from "On Golden Pond," they cry.

Some people think the show is pure schmaltz--fascinating, in a kind of horrifying way. But Gans will tell you that his show isn't all that different in spirit from "The Producers."

Whatever it is, Gans has been doing it in Vegas permanently since 1996, when he opened as the resident headliner at the Stratosphere. In the years since, he has upgraded--first to the Rio and then to the Mirage--and has become a so-called "destination act," a key cog in the billions generated by the estimated 35 million people who visit the Strip each year.

At the Mirage, drawing customers from other properties used to be Siegfried & Roy's domain, but since Gans showed up more than two years ago, the coiffed tiger tamers-illusionists have been forced into the somewhat galling position of sharing the marquee.

Gans performs between 75 and 90 minutes (he is off Mondays and Fridays). His band is a finely tuned machine, churning out the same bright notes in the same precise increments night after night after night. Shows start at 8 and Gans rarely takes the stage later than, say, 8:04. A digital clock at the foot of the stage, ticking off the seconds and visible only to Gans, tells him when he's pushing 90. As much as luring them in, Vegas entertainment is also about getting people back out there--to dine or shop or gamble.

Gans is part of this continuum, part of Vegas' growth as a mega-entertainment theme park. As the city tries to lose its kitsch entertainment image, shows have gotten classier and more elaborate. But they have also grown more commercial. In today's Vegas, in the biggest showrooms, you aren't shown to a table by a maitre d', and you don't have dinner and drinks. You buy your tickets online, and when you see Blue Man Group at Luxor, or Cirque du Soleil's "O" at Bellagio, you sit in a theater that could be anywhere and afterward you are supposed to buy a T-shirt or cap or video, which highlights what you've just seen.

The rampant commercialism makes sense and is only lamentable if you have a frame of reference--the "old" Vegas of Louis Prima and Shecky Greene. Today, when authenticity is replaced by a hyperactive, pseudo-authenticity, Gans is ideal. He is more than just Vegas-ideal, he is America ideal--as painless and convenient as a debit card swipe.

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