Two weeks before Spamalot is set to premiere at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, Musical Theatre West’s offices and rehearsal space are crammed full of people, props, and racks of medieval-looking costumes. Davis Gaines, set to play the lead in the production as King Arthur, suggests sitting down in a room off the kitchen which is piled from floor to ceiling with large boxes marked with the production’s name. Cast mates in the kitchen, including Zachary Ford (Sir Lancelot), look dubious about Gaines’ choice of interview space, but Gaines, dressed in a western-style shirt and jeans, seems delighted to sit among the boxes, which he says are full of props and set pieces from Spamalot’s Broadway production.
Gaines is growing quite familiar with Musical Theatre West (MTW). Spamalot marks his third show and second leading role at MTW. His part as King Arthur comes just months after MTW’s successful production of Man of La Mancha, in which he starred as the fated Miguel Cervantes/Don Quixote, opposite Lesli Margherita. Previous to La Mancha, Gaines appeared as Richard Henry Lee in MTW’s 2010 production of 1776.
It’s no wonder MTW asked Gaines back — Man of La Mancha was the highest-grossing production in the company’s history. So could Spamalot be as big a hit? The opening weekend is sold out. “Spamalot is getting close [to Man of La Mancha’s ticket sales] and we haven’t even opened yet. I think it’s going to be a big success,” Gaines says.
Gaines is a favorite of Phantom of the Opera fans. He’s been seen as the Phantom more than 2,000 times, and has performed the role in Los Angeles more than any other actor. His career spans decades and includes performances alongside the likes of Carol Channing and Richard Burton. He has also dabbled in television, having appeared in popular shows such as Desperate Housewives, Charmed, and Murder She Wrote.
With all his years of performing, Gaines cites his most recent role as the split character Miguel Cervantes/Don Quixote as his top pick. “I think it’s my favorite role I have played so far,” he says. What makes a fantasy part for someone who as the Phantom has played the dream role of so many others? Gaines explains, “It’s an actor’s dream role because you get to play three parts: Cervantes, Don Quixote, and Alonso Quixano.” Gaines admires the character and the show for their combination of comedy and tragedy. “For an actor in this role, you’ve got to run the gambit of everything””comedy and drama,” he says.
In Spamalot, which will be directed by MTW’s artistic director Steve Glaudini, Gaines is appearing as yet another knight errant of sorts in the role of King Arthur. Though this King shares the same cast of characters as Camelot, musical theater’s traditional take on the Arthurian legend, in Spamalot they are re-imagined by Monty Python a la the comic group’s cult classic film Monty Python and The Holy Grail. For Gaines, playing Arthur isn’t unfamiliar — he performed as King Arthur in Camelot last year at Sacramento Music Circus. Gaines explains what it’s like playing the same character in two different shows. “I think playing the ‘real’ King Arthur in Camelot helped me because I already had the feel, the accent, and the nobility of the character coming in to this,” he says. “But this is a totally different take on it.”
Gaines leans back in his chair and runs his hands through his short hair. He recalls his first performance of Camelot, in which he was part of the ensemble, as a valuable experience in preparing for his current role. “My first Broadway show was Camelot with Richard Burton, and Christine Ebersole was Guinevere.” Burton was cast as King Arthur. Gaines recalls, “I learned a lot watching Burton doing it. Watching him work every night was an amazing master class for me.”
When asked about his recent role as Don Quixote in comparison to King Arthur, Gaines notices similarities. Though he describes them as “apples and oranges,” he sees they have commonalities. “They are both on a mission, seeking a quest, searching for something,” he says. He takes his time speaking, seeming almost to be running through the performances in his mind. “I think they both have the same blinders on about what’s going on around them. Don Quixote may have some dementia, but King Arthur is just a little dense at times and may not be as bright as Quixote is. Arthur is naive and dense, which is where the humor comes in. He’s oblivious,” Gaines says.
Similarities between the two characters did not go unnoticed by creator and Monty Python member Eric Idle, who wrote a bit spoofing Quixote into the original production of Spamalot. Gaines notes, “There is a little bit we do which is in the original production. While all the knights are being introduced, this other knight with no name appears and looks like he could be out of either Camelot or Man of La Mancha. We all look at the knight and he says he is in the wrong show.” Gaines adds, “We have a line we’ve added where I say, ‘Been there done that,’” a tip of the hat to his recent appearance in Man of La Mancha.
As Gaines describes working on Spamalot, the word that comes up the most in the conversation is “fun.” According to the actor, he very much enjoys working in a comic capacity. “I have always loved comedy, and I think it comes more naturally to me,” he says of comedic versus dramatic acting. This may come as a surprise to those who have seen him in the role of Phantom, but Gaines insists even the masked man has a sense of humor. “Whenever I approach a character I always try to find his sense of humor, whether he is Phantom or Don Quixote. Everybody has a sense of humor, even if you’re a mass murderer or a crazy person””everyone has one.”
Appearing alongside Gaines are other LA theater vets like Larry Raben (Sir Robin) and Richard Israel (Historian/Fred/Herbert), who is usually found in the director’s chair. “Everyone is cast perfectly,” Gaines says of his costars. He proceeds to rattle off names of half the cast. “Richard [Israel] is hysterical. Tami Tappan, who plays Lady of the Lake, has an incredible vocal instrument. I have known Larry Raben for a long time but this is our first time working together. He’s a very good Sir Robin.” Gaines adds that he has worked with Jamie Torcellini, who plays his sidekick Patsy, quite a few times before. “He’s a great tap dancer,” he notes.
When Gaines talks about the dancing in the show, he gets excited. “I didn’t realize how much dancing there was,” he says. “There are tons of dance numbers, and the cast learned them all in a week. They’re pretty incredible.” Gaines attributes the quality of the dance numbers to choreographer Billy Sprague, Jr., who has been in the Broadway, Las Vegas, and touring productions of Spamalot, and choreographed the show previously for Sacramento Music Circus. Gaines thinks having Sprague onboard has been invaluable. “We’re so lucky to have Billy Sprague with us because he has been involved with Spamalot from the very beginning,” he says.
Also exciting to Gaines is MTW’s acquisition of the boxes piled high around him. As he explains what they contain, he gets up out of his chair and starts to rummage through a few. “We are doing the original choreography, the original staging, and we have the original Broadway sets and costumes. MTW bought the Spamalot set,” he says, pulling out a giant green hat reminiscent of Carmen Miranda, piled high with fake sparkling fruit. Not sure, perhaps, whether he should be putting it on, he sets it back down and sits back in his chair. Though Gaines admits, “I never thought I would do Spamalot,” it is clear from his enthusiasm that the show has grown on him.
According to Gaines, his next foray into the unknown will come in September, when he will be starring as Hannibal Lecter in Silence! The Musical, based on the thriller Silence of the Lambs starring Anthony Hopkins as a cannibalistic killer. Gaines remarks, “It’s crazy, equally crazy as Spamalot. It’s irreverent and nasty and adult in humor.” The show will premiere at the Hayworth Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in September. For now, though, Gaines is happy to be working at MTW again. “I love working here. It’s like a family. It’s fun to come to work. It’s not really work, especially with this show,” he says. His comments become clear as Gaines chats with nearly everyone gathering in the mirrored dance studio just as rehearsal gets into gear.
Spamalot, presented by Musical Theatre West. Opens Saturday. Plays Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm (no 2 pm performance Jun 30), Sun 2 pm (additional 7 pm performance Jul 8). Through Jul 15. Tickets: $20-$80. Previews Jun 29 at discount prices. Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach. 562-856-1999 x4. www.musical.org.
***All Spamalot production photos by Alysa Brennan