Ready to Play Grown-ups
Hugh Panaro is George in Sunday at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre

by David Edward-Hughes, The Sondheim Review
Hugh Panaro has built an impressive career in musical theatre, maturing from Marius to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and from Raoul to the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. So he's glad to add roles from the Sondheim canon to his resume. In 2006, he wowed Seattle with his shaded, nuanced, vocal-powerhouse turn as Bobby in the 5th Avenue Theatre's Company. He returnd this season (April 21-May 10, 2009) to play George in Sunday in the Park With George. On a break in reherasal, he pondered the joys and challenges of acting and singing Sondheim roles.

"There was a lot of good karma involved in getting to do Sunday," Panaro recalls. He was hired even before the Seattle theatre had chosen a director. "I got excited hearing we'd be using all the creative elements from the Roundabout production: set, costume, director [Sam Buntrock]. But it was also kind of scary, as I had not auditioned for Sam, and you don't want to be thrust upon a director, or vice versa."

Panaro's first day of rehearsal with co-star Billie Wildrick was "a good time. An important moment was on the third day, when we started the book scenes. Sam worked so beautifully, so respectfully, and I was thinking, 'Oh, thank goodness, we're not being cloned!' I relaxed from then on. It's a great feeling when you enjoy going to work every day; six o'clock comes, and you don't want to stop!"

Tasked with learning the complex Sunday score, Panaro mapped out his work carefully. "I immediately focused on 'Putting It Together' for the words, and 'Color and Light' with all that 'red, red, orange, red, red, orange,'" he says.

"The hardest thing, and you're gonna laugh, was in Act II, the whole 'George looks around, George sees the park, it is depressing.' It is so beautiful, and it has a fairly simple melody, but I struggled with the order of the words. I didn't give it as much attention as to what I perceived to be the more difficult songs. That's been my Achilles' heel."

Panaro loved playing the dogs. "I'm an animal freak," he laughs, "so getting to be Spot and Fifi, as well as me, is so much fun. But I really love 'Color and Light.' Initially it scared me [but] it turned out to be the most fun."

Happy reunions highlighted this Sunday: Broadway vet Patti Cohenour, Magnolia to Panaro's Ravenal in the Hal Prince Showboat, played Yvonne/Naomi. "Working with Patti, hearing that glorious voice again," he observes, "was the icing on the cake!" He has a special connection with another cast member, Allen Fitzpatrick, as Jules/Bob Greenberg. "He cast me in the lead in Butterflies Are Free when I was 17," Panaro recalls, "and this is the first time I've worked with him since!" Also onstage are some of the cast members from the 5th Avenue's Company, including Wildrick, who played April.

"I was naked in bed with her," he says. "Well, almost. When you've done an entire scene with just a thong on, you know each other pretty well... We have an automatic relationship and comfort level built in, as we explore this beautifully complex and sad pair of characters. Billie, whom I love, has been... peaceful and easy and productive from the first day. We're doing our own, truthful version, not a bad copy of what Bernadette and Mandy or Jenna and Daniel did. I think audience will respond to what we and Sam have created - as least I hope so."
Asked to compare playing George to Bobby, Panaro says, "I have a hard time leaving this role behind at the end of rehearsal. The two Georges are so much more intense than Bobby, in the way they relate to everybody in the show. Bobby is everybody's buddy... the missing puzzle piece in all those marriages... pretty amiable and malleable. The Act I George doesn't care what anything thinks or says, and he is perceived as peculiar and rude. Leaving that energy at rehearsal is tricky. My reaction time to people is starting to be a bit more demanding, like George. You cut to the chase; you don't have time for small talk."

In Company, he says, "The hardest song for me, and I hear it is for a lot of guys, was 'Someone Is Waiting.' It was hard lyrically, and you want it to be perfect. There's one in each show, I guess. But singing Sondheim, versus Rodgers and Hammerstein, you shouldn't over-sing. You have to check yourself. The sound you make is not as important as the word. Not that you don't want to sound nice."
Panaro hopes to reprise another Sondheim heavy-hitter at the 5th Avenue one day - Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, "Before it's too late!" he laughs. "In L.A., our Gussie was Teri Hatcher, in between Lois and Clark and Desperate Housewives. She sings quite well, and we got to make out in that show! Stella Stevens was in it too! Who knew she sang? All these closet singers!"

During the 2002 Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration, Panaro played Sweeney Todd's Anthony, working with Christine Baranski as Mrs. Lovett. (He refers to that experience as "watching a master class in acting Sondheim!"). What of future roles? "I want to plat the grown-ups," he says, citing Night Music's Carl-Magnus and Fredrik, not to mention Sweeney Todd. With his performance in Sunday, he just might be ready to take a stab at Sweeney.

(from The Sondheim Review, 2009)

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