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‘Character actor … in a leading man’s body’

The Broadway star from East Oak Lane, appearing in "Oliver!", has leading-man looks, a great tenor voice, and the soul of a big, generous kid.

Hugh Panaro, 45, has been onstage since age 13. He plays Fagin, below, in the Walnut's current musical, "Oliver!"
Hugh Panaro, 45, has been onstage since age 13. He plays Fagin, below, in the Walnut's current musical, "Oliver!"Read more

Hugh Panaro, from East Oak Lane and now - via Broadway - at Walnut Street Theatre, punched himself in the mouth.

Whether it hurt, he does not say. But he remembers during rehearsals for Oliver! being careful to notice where his fist landed and which teeth it knocked. Then he covered those teeth with black paint. The 45-year-actor, whose elegant stage voice complements his stage-door looks, was making himself as ugly as he thought Fagin - decrepit overseer of the show's pickpockets kids - should be.

Which is pretty grotesque. It takes Panaro an hour or so to make up for each performance of the Walnut's holiday musical, which boasts its biggest-ever cast (71, with 40 of Fagin's rascals in rotation). To him, the eight-plus hours a week he spends in front of a mirror before going onstage are an exacting pleasure. "I just play," he says.

Panaro has been just playing since he was 13. He has also been working hard.

"He doesn't lie down and wait for things," says his mother, Joan, who lives with her husband, Don, now retired from IBM, in the house near the tip of Broad Street where they raised Hugh and his older brother, Jim.

Panaro is back at the Walnut after portraying Jean Valjean there in 2008, in one of the first originally staged productions allowed by the creators of Les Misérables. He was revisiting the show two decades after playing a magnetic Marius, the young love interest, on the Les Miz national tour and on Broadway.

It was clear by then that directors would classify him as "Broadway" - something his mother says a stern nun did after he performed his only line in a show as a teen. Panaro went on to play in Broadway's longest-ever run, The Phantom of the Opera, eventually taking the title role and there, too, disguising his face nightly - with the iconic white Phantom mask, an easier makeup call than Fagin.

In between, in the '90s, Panaro appeared on Broadway in the musical The Red Shoes, the revival of Show Boat, and the new musical Side Show. He impressively did what he could in 2006 as the chief fang in the notably awful vampire musical Lestat, but even a Philly boy cannot fix everything. Still, he'll tell you, referring to Lestat's composer: "I can actually say Elton John wrote me a song."

Along the way, he has acquired a reputation as a guy you want to have acting - and singing and dancing - with you. "He describes himself as a character actor caught in a leading man's body," says Mark Clements, who directed Panaro at the Walnut in both Oliver! and Les Miz. "And that's perfect - a beautiful tenor voice and so good-looking . . . and a big old goofball underneath."

Clements, speaking by phone from England, where a panto - the wild British holiday theatrical tradition - he wrote is playing, explained Panaro's stage mojo: "Every move, every gesture, every lyric he sings has great consideration behind it. It's part of his natural psyche, his methodology.

"He's a thoughtful leading man - an inspiration to the company. He sets the bar high. And he makes people want to follow it."

That's his star quality, says the Walnut's producing artistic director, Bernard Havard, who met and cast the 22-year-old in A Little Night Music in 1986. (Among the historic pictures in the 200-year-old theater's lobby is one of Panaro in that show, a noose around his neck.) "It becomes obvious when someone takes the stage, and there's a sort of wow! factor, and the audience perks up and pays attention."

Still, he says, "Hugh is very generous in sharing the stage," and "he's engaging offstage as well. He transfers. Hugh can turn it up, but he doesn't turn it off."

In fact, Panaro - who toured Europe with Barbra Streisand in 2007 - is also turning it up at symphony concerts, booked around the nation into 2011 (though not, oddly, with the hometown Philly Pops).

Havard says he found his Fagin when he saw Panaro as a groveling prisoner in the first scene of the theater's Les Miz. "He reminded me of a ferret, the way he moved in the prison - escaping, running away from the police. As soon as I saw him, I thought of Fagin."

This is not Panaro's first Oliver!. When he was 15, he played Fagin's chief-of-staff, the little Artful Dodger, at the Huntingdon Valley Dinner Theater, where he - and later his mother - became an acting fixture long before the theater closed in the '90s.

Panaro landed his first role there at 13, when a music teacher persuaded him to audition with her; she didn't make the cut, but he did. His mother got her first role, as a backup in My Fair Lady, because she was always driving Hugh to the theater and the director thought "I looked like I could fit into the costume," she says.

Young Hugh, who took quickly to an electric organ his parents gave him at age 8, began making money four years later as the Sunday organist at St. Helena's Roman Catholic Church, still the Panaro family parish. He was hired to play five Masses at $5 per, and did homework in a pew in between.

His folks took him to Annie, his first Broadway show, when he was 13. Panaro continued playing dinner theater (and Mass) through La Salle High School where, after his junior year, he jumped a year to become a freshman in music at Temple University.

"I couldn't wait to get out of high school," he says. "I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew I wanted to perform. I couldn't wait to get on with it."

Temple was a four-year blip on that road, but his parents encouraged him to get a degree. He still played dinner theater, for which some of his voice trainers in opera chided him - though he did appear in a Temple production of the Offenbach operetta Orpheus in the Underworld.

"Within 48 hours of my [1985] graduation, my dad packed up a station wagon and moved me to New York. My parents helped me move into a sublet." Two weeks later, after hitting auditions listed in trade papers, Panaro had an Off-Broadway job in a satirical political revue.

Buoyed by experience and 20 years old, Panaro then went after a union dinner-theater job in a Connecticut production of Chicago. He had no agent, no professional Actors' Equity card, just guts.

"I told the director," he says, " 'I don't want to be rude, but if you don't let me in, it'll be the biggest mistake you'll make.' " He got the job, and the production bought him an Equity card. As a result, he never had to spend time in bit-part gigs to get one.

He had a six-year marriage to Tracy Shayne, with whom he performed in Les Miz on Broadway. Panaro calls her a "phenomenal actress" and says "we're still very close."

The couple had no children. Now, Panaro has 20 on stage each night - which "makes me feel like I get to be a big kid. My inner child is alive and well."

When he was 15, playing the Artful Dodger, "I used to sit back and listen to Fagin's songs and say, 'Oh, they are so boring. I don't want to do those songs.' When you're 15, all you can do is think about your own song," he says.

"Now, I'm the old man doing those songs." With much help from blackened teeth.