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STAGE REVIEW : Who Is That Masked Man?

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TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The last two years have shown that for an actor to fill Michael Crawford’s mask in “The Phantom of the Opera” is no easy task.

The choices are few: You either do something entirely different (as did Robert Guillaume, Phantom II, who succeeded Crawford last May and delivered a much angrier, equally valid, but less sexy Phantom) or you try to outdo Crawford--apparently the decision of Davis Gaines, Phantom III, who gave his inaugural performance at the Ahmanson Tuesday.

A first impression before a full house found him concentrating heavily on putting the sexiness back in. Understandable, since the timbre of Gaines’ voice has a poignancy and power akin to Crawford’s, and “The Phantom” is a fairy tale that the public has demonstrated it prefers to view as a titillatingly sensual fantasy.

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For Crawford this came naturally. For Gaines, at this first performance, it was harder work.

His Phantom is more lovesick--a freak whose driving force is not anger but torment caused by unrequited love and unbearable loneliness. It’s more a pleading than a plotting performance. It even flirted with bathos Tuesday, as his Phantom choked up and even stifled tears (causing some muffling in the body mike) in such scenes as the graveyard in Peros and the final climactic unraveling.

Gaines may have been overcompensating for opening-night tension (there was no opportunity for previews). Or for being slighter of build and therefore less prepossessing than his predecessors or Michael Piontek, who plays his rival, Raoul--a role previously performed by Gaines in the Broadway edition. It is a physical attribute that could and should be turned to advantage as the performance matures.

Forcing the emotions is, of course, not the answer. What Gaines needs most is to relax, which he is bound to do as he settles in. The rest should take care of itself. The big voice is there. So is the erotic intensity between him and Dale Kristien’s burnished Christine. Their “Point of No Return” duet in Act II was triumphant Tuesday, suggestive of both desire and anguish.

For indentured Crawford fans--and they are legion--nothing other than his particular ease, elegance and grace may satisfy. But for the audience at Tuesday’s performance, Gaines’ vocal power and even his somewhat overblown obsessiveness met with unquestioned approval, capped by a rousing standing ovation.

* “The Phantom of the Opera,” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; matinees Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. Indefinitely. $32.50-$50; (800) 762-7666 . Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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