Music of a New Night : With Ahmanson's 'Phantom' behind him, Davis Gaines is looking forward to his next project, his very own concert.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Libby Slate is a regular contributor to The Times

"I'm still reeling," said Davis Gaines two days after helping make local history when "The Phantom of the Opera," in which he starred as the title character, closed at the Ahmanson Theatre as Los Angeles' longest-running stage production ever. "I feel as if I'm walking on air. It was the most exciting night of my life."

The excitement began even before the curtain rose on that Aug. 29 final show of "Phantom's" 51-month run, during which time the 34-year-old Gaines turned in more performances here as the tortured masked man--942 since April 30, 1991--than predecessors Michael Crawford and Robert Guillaume combined.

"From the moment the house lights went down, the audience started applauding, and never stopped," he said, over lunch at CityWalk in Universal City. "I choked up at my last few notes: the phrase, 'It's over now, the music of the night.' "

After all the curtain-call farewells, the parties, the private family time, Gaines finally made it to bed at 3 the following morning. In the short time since, he said, "I haven't been depressed at all. I have so much to look forward to."

Indeed, less than 24 hours after the show closed, Gaines was in rehearsal for his next project. On Saturday he stars in his own concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, accompanied by a 23-piece orchestra and a trio of backup singers. He will be joined briefly by singer Lainie Kazan, his co-star in a production of the musical "The Rink," if she recovers from a recent illness.

The idea of doing a concert was suggested by Gaines' longtime friend Linda Johnson, amphitheater vice president of special events, whom he had met when both worked at Walt Disney World; as a high school student, he had landed his first professional job there as the "Pinocchio" character J. Worthington Foulfellow.

"When I came out here for 'Phantom,' we reconnected," he recalled. "She said, 'You really should come here and do something.' I said, 'Yeah, right.' But then she came to the show again a couple of months ago and said, 'You should think about it.' She was serious."

Booking Gaines made good business sense, Johnson said. "There was an incredible acceptance of Davis as the Phantom in Los Angeles. Over 2 million people had seen him, and he has a fan club that keeps up with all his comings and goings by computer. . . . They are local, exactly in our market area. So I considered doing something with Davis--an experiment, but a low-risk one. And he's such a great performer."

That opinion is seconded by Pam Dawber, with whom Gaines teamed up for concerts in Orange County in March.

"He has the most amazing instrument," she said. "With singers, there's always an area of the voice that's weaker, but with this man, there isn't. . . . It's all strong. He has an exceptional range, and he believes and feels the songs."

Putting together the concert, for which he started rehearsing with musical director John McDaniel while still doing "Phantom," is "an incredibly complicated undertaking, if you want to do it right," he said. "We hired a producing team, Andrew Jebb and Jill Soble, who worked on the Jerry Herman tribute at the Hollywood Bowl I sang in (this past June), and a lighting designer and a set designer. The orchestra contractor is from the 'Phantom' orchestra."

The two-hour show mixes Broadway show tunes with standards such as "Dancing in the Dark" and "Begin the Beguine" and some pop selections. "Some of the Broadway stuff will be well-known, like Billy Bigelow's 'Soliloquy' from 'Carousel,' and some won't. I'm also putting some songs together, like a Peter Allen song with a standard, or a standard waltz with a country song. There's no script--I'm concentrating on singing. I can't tell jokes."

And might he include a "Phantom" song or two?

"I don't think I could show my face in Los Angeles without doing something from 'Phantom,' " he said with a laugh.

It was, of course, not showing his face in Los Angeles, but hiding it behind the Phantom's white mask, that brought Gaines theater stardom.

He had previously played the role of "Phantom" romantic rival Raoul on Broadway, having made his Broadway debut in the chorus of a "Camelot" revival starring Richard Burton.

He later performed in national tours of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "Hello, Dolly!" as well as with the New York City Opera, New York Shakespeare Festival and Circle in the Square. During his Los Angeles "Phantom" stint, he appeared in the CBS series "Bodies of Evidence" and the network's soap "The Bold and the Beautiful."

His long run in "Phantom" has eased the challenge of doing a solo concert, he said. "I feel like I'm in better voice than I've ever been. It's become stronger and my range has increased. I've gained confidence in my performing. Knowing that the people who come to Universal will probably have seen me before makes me feel more relaxed. I hope the music will show a little more about me as an actor and a singer, the many more colors in my voice. They'll see the real personality, I hope, as opposed to the Phantom."

Next month, Gaines performs a similar concert in Palm Springs and will also re-team with Dawber in a benefit concert in Orange County. He hopes to release a recording of the amphitheater repertoire, possibly captured live rather than in a studio, and is participating in three other recording projects: a compilation of lesser known Stephen Sondheim songs, another compilation of tunes from animated films, called "Toonful," and a Christmas album to benefit the Equity Fights AIDS organization.

And it looks as though Gaines will don his mask again for a limited time when "Phantom" opens in San Francisco Dec. 12th.

"It would be thrilling to be the 'original guy,' " he said. "The entire time I was here, I felt I was constantly being compared to and had to overcome the stigma of Michael and Robert. I think I did a pretty good job of ignoring the whole thing and helping to keep the show open as long as it was. I originally signed only for nine months, but I loved it so much I stayed.

"I feel I accomplished something here," he added. "I grew as an actor and as a person these last 2 1/4 years. I know now that anything I set out to do for the rest of my life, I can accomplish."

Where and When Who: Davis Gaines. Location: Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza. Hours: 8:15 p.m. Saturday. Price: $28-$38. Call: Amphitheater box office, (818) 777-3931 from 1-9 p.m., or Ticketmaster, (213) 480-3232.

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