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Correction to This Article
The Backstage column in the Dec. 28 Style section contained an incorrect date for Shakespeare biographer Stephen Greenblatt's talk at the Woman's National Democratic Club. The lunch will be Tuesday, Jan. 11.

A 'Phantom's' Many Internet Haunts

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page C05

Hugh Panaro, currently singing the title role in "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway, has many fans among musical theater aficionados. If you Google him, you'll find folks taking up much cyberspace to praise his tenor voice, his visage, his six-foot frame and his stage persona.

"I have never been to my Web sites. . . . I find the Internet a very scary thing," confesses Panaro, who will join five other Broadway lights (Alice Ripley, Liz Callaway, Rob Evan, Sarah Pfisterer and Ray Walker) in "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber" at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday.

"Phantom" star Hugh Panaro is part of a salute to Andrew Lloyd Webber's music. (Courtesy Kennedy Center)

In agreeing to perform in the revue, Panaro says, he had one request: "I get to sing one duet with Alice," with whom he appeared in "Side Show" on Broadway. In addition to that duet, "Too Much in Love to Care" from "Sunset Boulevard," he will, of course, sing the "Phantom" anthem, "Music of the Night."

Panaro, 40, made his Broadway debut as the student idealist Marius in "Les Miserables," then moved over to "Phantom" in 1991 to play the dashing aristocrat Raoul. He came back to "Phantom" in 1999, but as the masked malefactor. Producer Cameron Mackintosh diverted him to co-star in the new musical "Martin Guerre," which passed through Washington in 1999 on a poorly received tryout tour. During the Kennedy Center's 2001 Sondheim Celebration, Panaro played love-struck sailor Anthony Hope in "Sweeney Todd." Last year he reclaimed his mask and cape in "Phantom," where he'll return Jan. 17.

Panaro sees the difference between singing Sondheim and Lloyd Webber as having more to do with words than music. "The first thing that pops into my mind with Sondheim is diction, because the use of lyrics is so brilliant -- no disrespect to any other composer."

Whether singing Sondheim or Lloyd Webber, Panaro says, the emotion is the target he tries to hit with perfect pitch. "I always tell people: If you want magnificent singing and beautiful line and pear-shaped tones, then you should go to the Met and the New York City Opera," he says, adding: "The great thing about musical theater is it is about acting through song. . . . If you just go out there and sing pretty music, I think the audience is going to disconnect."

Here's something you may not see on any of Panaro's fan sites. He's an "animal freak" who dotes on his Labradoodle, Soot, and even thought of becoming a veterinarian -- until he saw his first Broadway show. Recently, he recalls, two "Phantom" ballerinas ran into his dressing room "crying because their [pet fish] Pablo . . . was swimming on his side" and had a growth on his abdomen. "I got fish antibiotics from the pet store," Panaro says, "and I am happy to report that 48 hours later, Pablo is swimming normally and the growth on his abdomen has gone down." It's called cotton-wool disease and is common in bettas, he says.

In what may be a theatrical-veterinary karmic convergence, Panaro last year appeared off-Broadway in a musical called "Little Fish."

Translating Emotions

It's no simple thing, putting on a new Russian play in America, but Studio Theatre is devoting most of its season to contemporary Russian dramatists. "Black Milk," a bitter, profanely comic critique of Russian life by bad-boy writer Vassily Sigarev, will run Jan. 5 to Feb. 13.

The English translation that had its premiere at London's Royal Court Theatre is replete with Britishisms, so director Serge Seiden decided "to make a more universal script . . . that was true to the Russian idiom." He and Olena Kushch, a Russian Ukrainian who studies at Studio's Acting Conservatory, went through the original script and Sasha Dugdale's translation line by line. "She'd say what it meant literally, and then she'd explain the sense of it," says Seiden.

He decided the use of American accents -- say, Brooklynese for city folk and a drawl for rural folk -- would kill the play's Russian essence. "You have to use things other than accent and dialect," Seiden says. "You have to use rhythm . . . the speed of people's speech versus their accents."

Holly Twyford, who stars with Matthew Montelongo, says it's been a challenge to attain the "quicksilver emotions, and the extreme emotions" that range through every scene.

"There's this very Russian way of switching very fast between . . . rage and passion," Montelongo agrees. "That may be startling to an audience, but to be honest, it's very refreshing to an actor. . . . I hope that's Russian."

The two actors, who worked together on Caryl Churchill's "Far Away" at Studio last spring, play potty-mouthed Moscow grifters Shorty and Lyovchik, who come to a Siberian backwater to unload cheap toasters at inflated prices on the poor, seemingly clueless locals. But pregnant Shorty goes into labor after a group of unhappy customers confront the pair. By Act 2, she's given birth and attained a more spiritual outlook on life, which infuriates Lyovchik.

It's not only a specific human story but also a big, fat metaphor, says Twyford. "One could really look at that in the larger sense and say, 'It's Mother Russia giving birth to the new Russia, and what will become of her?' " Montelongo says Lyovchik is "like Russia -- kind of careening forward in the only way he knows how."

Seiden sees "the question that Sigarev is interested in [as] essentially a spiritual one.

"Is the Russian soul going to survive this transition . . . and I think he's saying right now it's in jeopardy again."

Follow Spots

• The burlesque-inspired Lobster Boy Revue will hold a New Year's Eve bash at the Warehouse Theater. Call 202-462-6331.

• Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, author of the new Shakespeare biography "Will in the World," will chat with John Andrews of the Shakespeare Guild at the Woman's National Democratic Club at a lunch next Tuesday. Call 202-232-7363 or visit www.democraticwoman.org.

• Round House Theatre has received a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts toward its production of "columbinus," a new work inspired by the Columbine High School shootings. It will run March 2-April 3 at Round House's Silver Spring venue.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company