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Two for “the Park”

Special to The Times

IN a bustling, low-key coffeehouse near New York’s meatpacking district, a hipster in a corduroy biker’s cap and thrift-shop print shirt taps away on a laptop. His cuffs are unbuttoned to expose wrists clotted with rope bracelets, and his baby face hasn’t seen a razor in weeks.

It would hardly be surprising to learn that this quietly intense, elegantly shaggy chap was a freelance graphic designer or the guitarist for a Williamsburg alt-rock band. Indeed, both are roles Manoel Felciano, 36, has played over the course of an eclectic career. For the moment, though, he wears the unlikely mantle of Tony-nominated Broadway musical actor -- a credit he did not seek with particular eagerness, to put it mildly.

“I don’t like a lot of musical theater; it’s not what I go home and listen to,” said Felciano, acclaimed for his breakout performance as the deranged Toby in 2005-06’s unconventional production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd,” in which a 10-member cast headed by Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone sang, acted and instrumentally performed every beat of the script and the score. “I have a lot of respect for the form; ‘Avenue Q,’ for instance, is incredibly smart. But it’s just not where my musical heritage is, it’s not what moves me, it’s not what I wanna go perform.”

So what is Felciano doing in the lead role of the musical “Sunday in the Park With George” in Reprise!'s new semi-staged revival? For one thing, Felciano said he’s learned that as an actor, “You don’t really have much control over how you’re perceived -- and as one of my professors in grad school said, ‘The role chooses you.’ ”

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That said, the title role in Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat happens to be one Felciano would gladly choose.

“Sondheim is the great exception, because his work appeals to me on an intellectual level and on a musically sophisticated level,” said Felciano, whose father is the classical concert composer Richard Felciano and whose mother is dance critic Rita Felciano. It was while majoring in humanities at Yale that the longtime violinist, playing in the pit for a college production of “Sweeney Todd,” fell under Sondheim’s spell.

But it has been as an actor that Felciano has found his strongest connection to Sondheim. Felciano cited the “Sweeney Todd” ballad “Not While I’m Around,” in which the dimwitted Toby reassures his beloved employer, Mrs. Lovett, that he’ll protect her from unnamed “demons.” The secret to the song, Felciano discovered, is its subtext: Toby is “singing the song because there’s a serial killer upstairs with a knife who’s up to no good and is going to kill her if I don’t do something about it, but I’m too scared to actually spell that out in those words.”

Once he recognized the song’s acting objectives, Felciano said, “I was like, ‘Oh, my work’s entirely cut out for me; Sondheim’s done it all for me.’ It’s like Shakespeare that way: You just go back to the text. Before you start to make up all kinds of stuff on your own, mine that text as much as you can, and you’ll see it’s all in there.”

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It didn’t hurt that in director John Doyle’s form-breaking actor/musician conception of “Sweeney” (which he also uses in the current Broadway production of “Company”), Sondheim’s music became an explicit theatrical counterpoint to his eminently actable lyrics.

“When Mrs. Lovett sang, ‘Nothing’s gonna harm you’ back to me, I was playing this dissonant counter-melody on the violin,” Felciano explained. “What was once orchestral subtext suddenly became dialogue: She’s singing, ‘Nothing’s gonna harm you,’ and I’m saying, ‘Oh, yeah -- something is.’ ”

It was a deliciously complicated moment in a show fairly stacked with emotional layers.

“I couldn’t wait to get to it,” said LuPone, who played Mrs. Lovett opposite Felciano. And it wasn’t just her costar’s grasp of the song’s subtext that made it worth looking forward to. “It’s very rare that you can look into an actor’s eyes and connect,” LuPone continued. “That’s what Mano and I had, always. It was never, ‘Today I feel like it, next day I don’t.’ He was always in it.”

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For his production of “Sunday in the Park With George,” director Jason Alexander won’t expect his actors to play the score, but he will be digging for shadings that weren’t apparent in the work’s 1984 Broadway premiere, which starred Mandy Patinkin as the emotionally distant painter and Bernadette Peters as his frustrated model and mistress.

“Mandy’s approach to Seurat was to take his obsession as something that could not make him anything but cold and unknowable,” said Alexander. “I believe that George passionately wants to share with the world what he sees, but he doesn’t have the words, and he is driven by this desperate need to communicate. That makes for a much more heartfelt George -- equally screwed up, but not cold.”

This much seems clear upon meeting Felciano, a brainy, garrulous polymath with a laddish affect that faintly suggests a more subdued Ewan McGregor. But there were few traces of this man’s Mano in his stark, riveting performance as the addled Toby, and to cast him as a show-carrying leading man does seem a leap of faith. In fact, Alexander admitted that an offer to play George had gone out to Patrick Wilson (“Angels in America,” “Little Children”), and that the idea of Felciano occurred to him only after he first checked the actor’s “Sweeney” costar, the already committed Cerveris, off his list. “But once we thought of Mano,” Alexander said, “the lightbulb really went off.”

Felciano is no stranger to felicitous casting flukes. It was in 1996, while freelancing as a designer and playing in rock bands, that he was spotted by a casting director while hanging out in a bar with Melissa Errico, a fellow Yalie and musical theater actress (“My Fair Lady,” “High Society”). Before he knew it, he had landed an audition for the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman musical “Whistle Down the Wind,” to be directed by Broadway veteran Harold Prince.

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“I went in and played my guitar and sang ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,’ and they took a Polaroid,” he recalled. “I had no fear. I was like, ‘Who cares about this stupid musical theater ... ? Who are these people? Hal Prince -- that sounds vaguely familiar. Whatever.’ ” His confidence must have impressed Prince, as Felciano soon had a job as a swing, or second understudy for the show’s lead role.

As it happens, the show never whistled its way to Broadway, but it did inaugurate Felciano’s acting career, which continued with a stint in the Broadway company of “Cabaret,” a tour as a Judas understudy in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and inevitably a graduate course at NYU. If, as he said, he studied humanities at Yale because he was “terrified of specializing,” he’s focused on acting in large part because it’s a way to stay in touch with his many interests.

“I came into acting by the back door, by a complete accident,” he confessed. “But I realized that here was this thing in which everything that I did and knew and had ever experienced was at some point going to be useful -- applicable to a role or a piece. That’s very, very gratifying. I can’t think of a lot of other professions in which you have to draw upon everything you have inside you.”


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