Danny Gans starting new chapter in his career at Encore

Danny Gans tunes his act with the fine touch we used to give a radio dial. And he knows what stations he is looking for.

"The two radio stations I listen to a lot in town right now are (KXMB-FM) 94.1 and (KSNE-FM) 106.5," he says. In corporate radio, the KXMB format is designated "Hot AC" while KSNE is the slightly broader "Adult Contemporary."

So, Gans explains, if he hears a song by Jason Mraz on both stations, "I know it’s crossing over to a larger market." The Hot AC is "just for a younger crowd. But if it’s crossing over to 106.5, this is now People magazine" in terms of accessibility.

An impressionist thinks about these things. Especially an impressionist at a crossroads.

Gans is starting a new chapter of his Las Vegas career, with a charity benefit today paving the way for Tuesday’s launch as the resident headliner of Encore.

At 48, he’s no longer the new kid who can surprise people, the way he did with his first run at the Stratosphere. Back then, no one younger than Rich Little had reinvented singing impressions, and Gans wowed ’em by dropping the voices of Anita Baker, Forrest Gump and Hootie & The Blowfish — remember, this was 1996 — alongside the usual George Burns and Tony Bennett.

But Gans has something now he didn’t then: a track record, which makes him as close to a sure bet as anything on the Strip in these troubled times. Steve Wynn is counting on the impressionist to anchor at least three years in the 1,500-seat theater that previously housed "Monty Python’s Spamalot" at Wynn Las Vegas (but now is being branded with the adjacent Encore).

The competition is tougher now. The Mirage signed popular ventriloquist Terry Fator — who readily admits his current direction was inspired by watching Gans — to fill his old theater across the street starting Feb. 14. And Gordie Brown, fresh from the visibility of touring with Celine Dion, was set to reopen at the Golden Nugget on Thursday.

Gans says he’s up for the challenge. "I think I’m a much better entertainer than I was when I first came to town," he says. "I know much more, my repertoire’s grown, I’m a better singer and a better comedian. I’m a better performer, just because I’ve been doing it for 12 years longer.

"I have the same amount of energy as when I started here, the same amount of desire to please the audience."

The latter is Gans’ main obsession. The details of tuning his act to please as many fans as possible consumes the bulk of a chat in the receiving area of his dressing room, which looks astonishingly like the one he left behind at The Mirage in November.

"I see it as, what does the audience want?" he explains. "I’m trying to give them exactly what they want, (a combination of) what’s on the radio right now and the legends that are never going to go away."

His definition of "current" goes back to those stations that play Maroon 5, John Mayer and Five for Fighting, not Lil Wayne or Estelle. "I’m not out there at the Encore casino trying to attract 18- to 25-year-olds. I’m really going for the 35 and up and the gamblers. That’s what they listen to," he says.

"I’ve always felt my strength is in the singing, even though the bulk of the show is comedy," he adds. "I think what separates me from a lot of the guys is I can sing, and I can push that envelope and try to do what they expect me to do, which are the legendary guys, but throw in some that they don’t expect."

Just what new bits to add, and where to place them, become the topic of consideration that extends all the way to Gans’ daughter Amy, who monitors crowd reaction from her post as a showroom usher.

For a time, Gans opened The Mirage shows with Bon Jovi. Some nights it went over big, and "other nights, I’d walk out and see the ladies clutching their purse." He found a happier medium after seeing the band Chicago at the MGM Grand. But now he has to find a new place for Bon Jovi amid the greatest hits.

"If I get an hour-twenty into the show and people start thinking I’m not going to do something, they’ll start yelling out for what they came back for," he says of favorites such as "The 12 Days of Christmas" or his tribute to the Apollo Theater.

Gans also has a new production design that takes advantage of a theater built for Broadway, versus the limited staging that was carved from ballroom space at The Mirage. Now, his "Phantom of the Opera" bit includes projected scenery and theatrical smoke and lighting.

His one request, he says, was to keep it all flexible. "It’s very important for me that I’m not locked in to where I have to do this (sequence). If I don’t want to do it that night or I want to do something else, I want the freedom to be able to. That’s why we created these screens."

During his break between The Mirage and Encore, Gans managed to squeeze in both shoulder surgery and the bulk of recording for an album, set for release in mid-March on the Hi Fi Recordings label. The first 10 songs are in his own voice, covers of upbeat "one-hit wonder" songs such as "Build Me Up Buttercup" by the Foundations. "You put it on in your car and you’re not skipping anything," he promises.

The producer talked him into doing impressions for the last song, "What A Wonderful World." "It’s a touchy thing, because you don’t have the visual. You’ve really got to be spot-on," he says. But no less an authority than Harry Connick Jr. pegged all the voices while listening to a rough mix in the dressing room.

"The record thing is fun. I don’t really expect much. If it hits, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too," Gans says. "It’s a fun project. But everything filters back to the show.

"I take a lot of the pride in the fact that I’m still here," he says. "I feel like I’m kind of the ‘Rocky’ of this town. I’m still standing, still drawing. As long as I can do it, why not keep doing it?"

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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