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Who Will Buy ... Fagin as Anything but Twisted?

December 17, 2009 By:
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That was the decision -- sensitive, without a sniff of a second thought -- that has helped make Fagin of Oliver Twist fame not such a fearful figure raising the ante of anti-Semitism in the new production of "Oliver!" -- the book-based musical now at the Walnut Street Theatre.

"When I was offered the role, I sat down with [director] Mark Clements, and one of the first things we had to come up with was a prosthetic nose, which is almost a tradition," says Hugh Panaro, the full-fledged Fagin on stage at the Walnut.

"I felt strongly, as did Mark, that we could not do the Alec Guiness nose," the one the legendary Brit actor used in the excellent, yet notorious, 1948 David Lean movie version of "Oliver Twist," in which Fagin's Jewishness was as plain as the ... well, you know.

Face it, says Philadelphia's Panaro, character need not be caricature.

"I'm not Jewish, I'm Italian -- which is quite close; guilt is guilt," he jokes. "But there's no need to" stereotype the Jewishness of the character.

You got to pick a pocket or two of air when breathing new life into the character. And when picking to play Fagin -- and focusing on a proboscis that probes the roots of anti-Semitism -- one can be sensitive or outrageous.

No artful dodger he; Panaro is upfront and center-stage on the character; leader of a band of ruffians -- sort of a Back Street Boys with pickpocket penchants -- the early 19th-century Fagin feigns a sense of humor while taking his job as corrupter of a cadre of kids so deadly seriously.

The character -- central to Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, published in 1838 -- has always carried the baggage of an anti- Semitic profile, based as he is on the low-life icon of Ikey Solomon, a base criminal and "kidsman" -- a Brit term describing a ringleader who rounds up kids to pull off his criminal doings.

Indeed, Dickens' novel approach -- Fagin is one of the few literary figures during Dickens' times to be identified by ethnicity as a Jew -- filled pages with ethnic references, with historian Irving Howe, in an introduction to a paperback edition of Oliver Twist, calling the character an "archetypical Jewish villain."

What could he do but give Jews the Dickens, said the author who created the character? In that same edition with the intro by Howe, author Dickens himself is quoted on how he came up with the depiction of Fagin: "It unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew."

Where was Abe Foxman when you needed him?

With later reports that Dickens seriously softened his harsh assessment, the original image nevertheless seemed to stick in cinema and other depictions, with graphic novelist Will Eisner eying the contretemps his own way in Fagin the Jew six years ago.

And yet, Lionel Bart's brilliant musical version, which premiered in 1960 in London before trekking the Atlantic for its Broadway debut three years later, has never raised the Fagin fuss as much as the movie and TV renditions have.

And, now, nearly 50 years later, the Walnut turns to Fagin and asks: "Less, sir?"

Referring to himself as a "secret agent Jew," given his history of girl friends and having been been wed in an interfaith ceremony to his now ex-wife, who was Jewish -- and his intimate knowledge of the religion's holidays, rites and rituals, as well as the Reform movement -- Panaro pans past images that sold the stereotype.

In fact, he became something of a Fagin historian: "I watched every version I could put my hands on," he says of his exhaustive research of the character's twists and turns over the years -- depictions going back to the Lon Chaney Sr. portrayal in 1922 and the one recently limned by Alan Rickman this past year.

In the process, Panaro has panned for gold and come up with sterling reviews. The effort included a muse in the musical -- "Peter Schmitz, who plays Mr. Sowerberry, is an amazing font of historical knowledge; he gave me 12 pages about Jews in 19th-century London, and how they were so mistreated at the time" -- in giving shape to one of the actor's more intriguing and intricate inventions.

And that says a lot for an actor who could also be called HUGE Panaro -- not physically, but in the metaphysical approach to roles, many of which have been larger than life; this one may be the largest of the "larger."

Earning Broadway bravos for his role as Marius and a Barrymore Award for his Walnut Street Theatre Valjean in "Les Miserable" -- and unmasking inventive insights into the "Phantom" in his Broadway engagement in that long-running musical -- Panaro offers at once panache and painstaking detail.

Be back soon -- well, hopefully, wish audiences, more often than the local talent with globetrotting treats to offer has appeared in Philadelphia before.

"This is my third appearance at the Walnut in the past 23 years," he says.

But for an actor accustomed to the business' oversized egos -- well, he did tour at one point with Barbra Streisand -- who will buy any claim these days that he can buy off audiences' other memories of Fagin as anti-Semitic?

Don't judge the musical by the book's cover of the role. "Fagin is not the character in the book; he's more benevolent in this. And the audiences gets the fact that indeed, he loves these kids." Hiss and diss Fagin all you want but, in essence, "this is a dysfunctional family."

Panaro's performance ranks as one of his best without the rancor accorded other interpretations. "It is very important to me as an actor and as a sensitive human being" not to take part in a portrayal which pours on the vitriol.

After all, points out the non-Jewish Panaro with a paean to his interfaith insider's viewpoint, and his admiration of Judaism, it's a fine, fine life indeed.

"I've come to realize," he says of his education in the Reform movement, "I live the life of a good Jew already." 

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