When Jennifer Holliday returns to the Warner Theatre tonight as Mahalia Jackson in "Sing, Mahalia, Sing," the gospel opera that surrounds her will be somewhat different than when it premiered here in March. Director George Faison did some restructuring as the musical moved from city to city, but Holliday's presence is as distinctive and dominating as ever.

Ironically, Holliday wasn't all that eager to assume this first stage role since her Tony-winning performance as Effie in the Broadway smash "Dreamgirls." She was concerned "not about taking on the role, but about taking on another Broadway show. At the time, I was working on my album and we were at the mixing stage and I was so tired, I really didn't want to. But I also thought it would be a challenge" to portray the legendary gospel singer.

"If I were to succeed in it, then I would have done something really great."

In fact, the show has rekindled interest in Jackson, not only as the greatest gospel star of all time, but as a social and moral force in the civil rights struggle and as a role model. "That's the ultimate reward," says Holliday. "To me, 'Sing, Mahalia, Sing' is in workshop, expensive workshops, because they're charging you to come see us fix it as we go along. But if you could see the people whose lives have been touched by it, who found something in it . . . I just want to be known for doing things that uplift people and get them through the day."

While "Mahalia" has received mixed reviews, the accolades for Holliday have been uniform. Like Jackson, she has a strong, imposing presence, and she easily conveys the impression of majesty many attached to Jackson. It is an impression through implication rather than imitation, a match rather than a copy. Holliday says she "really couldn't mimic Jackson , because you don't bring anything to life by doing it exactly like that person would have done it. If you do it too much, it's making fun of them, and if you don't do it enough, it's not good enough, so I had to fall back on what I could. If I could just bring life to the songs, I felt that would help me get her over."

Holliday, 25, admits that she was not a big fan of Jackson's. "I didn't grow up with her, she was before my time. Actually, she was born about 22 years before my mother was born, so I didn't really get a chance to know her, or know that much about her music. I had to go back and listen to her records," mostly to observe Jackson's range and phrasing, and "the way she would do runs, or what you might call riffs."

"I'm real interested in period music anyways," she says. "In fact, one day I hope to do the Bessie Smith story. It's a dream of mine. I just have to get somebody to write it for me."

"Sing, Mahalia, Sing" (at the Warner through July 7) was originally intended as a vehicle for Aretha Franklin, and there's a nice symmetry involved there, observes Holliday. "Mahalia used to listen to Bessie, and Mahalia was Aretha's idol. And I used to listen to Aretha morning, noon and night. So it does kind of go around in a circle. I hope I do that well."

Holliday's commitment to "Mahalia" does not extend to Broadway. "I'm just staying until they find who they want to take it there ," she says, adding, "I doubt it will be me."

One factor may be the upcoming release (Aug. 12) of her second Geffen album, "Say You Love Me," which includes "a very pretty pop ballad, and a very special song, 'You're the One,' written for me by Michael Jackson. He also produced it, which is rare. I met him when I did 'Dreamgirls' in L.A., and we just became very familiar. He called and said, 'I hear you're working on your album, maybe I'll write you a song.' I thought . . . great!"

Holliday used six producers on the album (including Arthur Baker and Reggie Lucas). "You get better variety," she says, "but it's harder work and it costs more money. Thank God I'm the kind of organized person that I am, otherwise we would be in a lot of trouble. I don't think I'll use as many on the next album."

"There is more danceable stuff this time around than on my debut," she adds. "Last time I concentrated on the ballads."

Concentration also figures in Holliday's approaches to performing on stage. "In concert roles, you have so much freedom," she explains. "You can talk to the audience, if two or three songs don't work you can throw them out, or if you feel like dancing you can dance, or you can have people join you. You can change the mood whenever you want. It's your show, and I like that much better.

"Doing the Broadway kind of thing, you know they're having a good time, but you can't break character. They can say to you, 'Sing it, girl!' but you can't say, 'I sure will, honey,' because you're in character. That's difficult," she says, much more so than making the transition from Effie to Jennifer to Mahalia and back to Jennifer.

But Holliday has that under control as well.

"I just bought a house in Houston her home town , the kind of place I've always wanted," she says. "It's so hard to find a balance in this business, but I have been working toward that for the last couple of years, and I'm getting there. I like to paint, write music, read, and I need the right kind of atmosphere to do that. I'm very excited about making both my career and my personal life work together so that I can have a full and complete life. I want to be 40 and still be able to say that even after 25 years, I'm happy in this business."