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Edward Hibbert Has a Crafty Role in Paper Mill’s “Sound of Music”

Edward Hibbert Has a Crafty Role in Paper Mill’s “Sound of Music”

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“You couldn’t hate me,” retorts Max Detweiler, the politically ambivalent impresario of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.” “I’m too lovable.”

Lovable, complicated and pivotal. For a character that first appears onstage about 50 minutes into the show, Max is a delicious hybrid of villainy and empathy —a promoter who flirts with allegiance to the Nazis for self-gain, but is probably complicit in orchestrating the von Trapp family’s famous escape from Austria.

Edward Hibbert is carrying out Max’s schemes in his debut appearance at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse, where “The Sound of Music” is the holiday attraction through Dec. 30. Hibbert, a Broadway favorite who came to the fore as Gil Chesterton, the insufferable food critic he played for 11 years on TV’s “Frasier,” claims he’s lovable, too.

“I’d rather not be a snob,” he says pointedly, peering through round tortoiseshell glasses and speaking in a British accent as plummy as jam on bread. “I’m a snob about certain things. Good writing is important to me. Bad writing is horrifying.”

(Word up. As it turns out, Hibbert has a parallel career as a literary agent with Donadio & Olsen in New York. He hangs with clients like Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”) and undoubtedly can sight a dangling participle at 90 yards.)

“We all know that movie in which Max is reduced to a canapé, and he doesn’t have the songs,” Hibbert observes about his character, referring to the “lesser” R&H tunes “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It.” (Both are retained in the score at the Paper Mill.) “I think they’re extremely good songs, a very nice sorbet to the saccharine melodies of more familiar songs.”

Director James Brennan also helmed the theater’s last revival of “The Sound of Music” in 2003, and was a cast mate of Hibbert’s during the 1980s Broadway run of “Me and My Girl.” Brennan, who saw “The Sound of Music” as a young teen during his first visit to the Paper Mill, capitalized on Hibbert’s “acerbic wit” for mining some of the comedy in the role.

“You are astonished, or at least a little surprised at the end when this person, who sort of looms as a possible villain, then becomes entirely sympathetic,” he contends.

Hibbert’s bred-to-the-bone demeanor as urbane Brit has some urban Yank in it, too. Born in 1955 in Kew Gardens, Queens, his family moved to England when he was 2. His training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art intertwined with summers at the Chichester Festival Theatre — where, as a junior member of the company, he orbited the likes of Maggie Smith (a cherished friend), Joan Plowright and Alec Guinness. As a young spectator, he absorbed countless performances at London’s National Theatre, such as Olivier in “The Dance of Death.”

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After acting for a spell in the West End, by the 1980s Hibbert recalls, “I simply said, ‘I’ve got this American birthright. I should probably go and investigate the city I was too young to remember.’ Like most people, I fell in love with New York.” His turn in Paul Rudnick’s AIDS-era play “Jeffrey” drew the attention of TV producers in Los Angeles and Hibbert himself was attracted to the brilliant comedy scriptwriting of “Frasier.” Cast in a recurring role with “a magnificent group of actors,” he dithered around the fictional Seattle studios of KACL-AM as Frasier’s frenemy for more than a decade.

It’s hard to picture Hibbert in a musical comedy on Broadway without a silver tea service within reach on set, and sure enough, there’s even one in “The Sound of Music.” As the butler Underling in “The Drowsy Chaperone” (2006), he kept a stiff upper lip while enduring a deluge of spit takes by Georgia Engel, and enjoyed similarly puffed-up roles in the farce “Noises Off” (a high-maintenance British actor) and “Curtains” (a flamboyant stage director).

Recent choices have included playing opposite Cherry Jones in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” on Broadway and reteaming with David Hyde Pierce (his friend from “Frasier” and “Curtains”) in the new musical “It Shoulda Been You,” which Pierce directed at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Frequently called by Hollywood studios (“The First Wives Club,” “The Prestige”) and for voiceover gigs (“Lion King” DVDs), Hibbert also announces the less lucrative, pre-curtain admonishments at “Sound of Music” performances.

The openly gay actor resides in a low-key West Village neighborhood and makes it his business to champion the efforts of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, but “you won’t see me on a gay pride float.” Hibbert doesn’t read music — however, books and music are his indulgences. He’s currently devouring Palahniuk’s latest work-in-progress and expects to shepherd a future biography of uber-agent Sue Mengers by Brian Kellow, with the working title “I’ll Get Back to You: The Life and Times of Sue Mengers.”

A kind of Hibbert Unplugged solo show is planned for February at the new Manhattan cabaret 54 Below — a little irreverent patter, a little reminiscing, a little music composed by up-and-comer Sam Davis. This month at Birdland, he’ll reunite with some of his former co-stars in an evening of songs by Greg Morrison and Lisa Lambert, composer-lyricists of “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Considering his longtime alliance with Dame Maggie, is an episode of  “Downton Abbey” on the wish list for an actor with dual citizenship?

“You may well ask,” he replies, smiling slyly. “I’m in the wrong country for that, aren’t I?”

“The Sound of Music” is performed eight times a week, Wednesdays through Sundays, at the Paper Mill Playhouse on Brookside Drive in Millburn. Tickets are $26-$97. Call the box office at (973) 376-4343 for additional information or special holiday schedules.

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