‘Phantom’ star Derrick Davis talks Smith Center, racism and chandelier

Updated June 5, 2017 - 10:37 am

Tall and handsome actor and singer Derrick Davis is no stranger to Las Vegas.

Davis, who stars as The Phantom in the touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” now at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts for 16 performances through June 11, portrayed Mufasa and covered for Scar during the 2 1/2 year run of “Disney’s The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay from 2009 to 2011.

Davis, whose theatrical credits also include “Dreamgirls,” “Show Boat” and “Die Fledermaus,” chatted at The Smith Center on Thursday — it was the afternoon after opening night of “Phantom” and before a media peek at the beloved Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber musical’s costumes, stage and that famous chandelier.

Last night was opening night of “The Phantom of the Opera” at The Smith Center. How did it go?

It went really well. The first show in every city is a little bit interesting because when you’re on tour, you don’t get a rehearsal with the venue or the locals. A lot of people don’t know that we travel with our team of people, but we augment our staff incredibly with the local team of people in the orchestra, the costume dressers, the stagehands and the crafts people behind the scenes.

It’s always exciting, the first show. To answer your question more succinctly (laughs), it went well. The audience loved it.

What was your first impression of The Smith Center — Reynolds Hall?

It’s stunning. I was in Las Vegas for three years with “The Lion King,” from 2009 to 2011 at Mandalay Bay, but left before The Smith Center was completed, so I never got to see it. To be able to be back in Las Vegas and to see The Smith Center is a nice homecoming.

What is the most challenging aspect of portraying The Phantom?

The emotional content of the character is full. To perform this role convincingly and effectively, you have to invest 100 percent of the emotion required in order for the audience to go on the true journey of pain and love and unrequited love and mastery and music. You have to invest it all and leave it all on the stage every single show and deal with the physical exhaustion at the end.

Is donning the mask a challenge?

It was initially because, as I’m sure you can imagine, having something covering half your face is a little foreign in the beginning. But oddly enough now, I don’t find comfort in the role until the mask is on. When the mask comes off during the course of the production, I feel naked onstage.

How does this role as The Phantom compare with your work in “Dreamgirls,” “Disney’s The Lion King” and other productions?

This role is obviously iconic. The others are, as well. “The Lion King” was an incredible, incredible ride, and it will always hold a special place in my heart, but “The Phantom” was the first show that I ever saw with my family as a child on Broadway with Davis Gaines as The Phantom.

It put in me the love for musical theater, so for me in my career to come back full circle with this company and play that role, the role that so many men would love to be able to play, it is the quintessential titular character in musical theater. If you say “Phantom,” everybody knows what you’re talking about, so to be able to play it is a blessing.

I know that you’ve been asked this question many times, so you’re probably ready for it, and I hate to ask it in 2017, but it is still as relevant as ever with the recent racist incident involving LeBron James. Was there any backlash as a black actor when you took on the role of The Phantom?

There has been a little bit of negative response to it, but the positive response has been so incredibly overwhelming. I can count on one hand literally the negative responses that I have received. The media, no offense whatsoever, tends to sensationalize things that are bad or painful or shocking, so we get this idea that everyone in this country has some sort of a racist view.

Traveling the country, I have found that is really not the case. In 2017, we’re ready for it. We’re ready for people of all colors, shapes, sizes and orientations to step into roles and tell stories and become art. At the end of the day, the only part of my skin that you see is my hands and half my face. The rest is all covered.

What is your dream role?

Well my dreams roles were Mufasa and The Phantom — I wrote them both down. The third role on my list is to originate a role because I’d like to go through the creative process with the team and be the first to bring a character to life. I would love to have that opportunity at some point.

Let’s end with two fun questions. How does it feel to share the stage and spotlight with a chandelier?

(Laughs) My God, the chandelier is the star — especially in this production and this house. This house, the ceiling is very high, so the chandelier fall is exceptionally dramatic. To share it, I love it.

Is there anything on your To Do List in Las Vegas when you’re not performing in “Phantom”?

Oh my God, I need a Fukuburger first of all because I used to go to that truck all the time. I need to find it, if it’s the truck or the mainstay. I’ve already gone to Sunrise Cafe. That is one of my favorite breakfast places, period, bar none, around the world. The people are so beautiful there — so wonderful inside. The last thing … I hope to get back to Red Rock before I leave, that 16-mile loop. It feels like everything in the world disappears for a minute. Oh, and the spas, forget about it, I love a good soak at the spa!

* * *

Stage manager Mitchell B. Hodges, who has been with this touring production for nine months, discussed the costumes one on one: “We have over 1,200 costume pieces in this show. Our tour alone employs one person who just does costume fixes and one person who just does laundry all the time. Most other shows, it’s just here and there.

“We have so much that is maintained, and our costumes are the original design, so some of them that you see here are 25 years old. All the intricate beading needs to be constantly checked, and if we discover problems, we fix them.

“We are one of the larger shows on the road, and that is a blessing and a curse for us. It can limit us as to where we can go, but if we can fit, we’ll fit. It can be difficult to make 20 trucks fit into a building.”

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