Baltimore’s live theater scene has been changing so rapidly in the past few months that keeping up with it has been like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole: As soon as we attempt to give one development the attention it deserves, another pops up.
Below, are two of January’s theater highlights — and unfortunately, one lowlight. One local theater is expanding, another has unfurled its lineup of musicals for next season, and one longtime stalwart is shutting down.
Arena Players receives $4 million grant
Baltimore’s Arena Players has a double reason to celebrate.
Arena, the oldest continually-operating African American community theater in the United States is midway through its 69th anniversary season, and it just received a $4 million federal grant to renovate its aging playhouse at 801 McCulloh St.
Those funds added to the $1.2 million gift secured from the state of Maryland a few years ago will be enough “to do just about everything that needs to be done,” the company’s executive director, Catherine Orange said.
“This is so sorely needed,” she said, “and it is a tribute to the kind of work we do and the dedication we have.”
The grant was included in legislation advanced by three Democratic politicians representing Maryland: U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume.
“For decades, Arena Players has been part of Baltimore’s cultural heartbeat,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Not only have they provided a platform for Black art and theater, they have been a catalyst for social change.”
He added that the federal funds “will enable Arena Players to breathe new life into their storied space, ensuring their shows will go on.”
Arena moved into the McCulloh Street space during the 1961-62 season and purchased the building in 1969. Over the decades, alumnae have included such well-known actors as Howard Rollins (who starred in the movie version of “Ragtime”), Charles S. Dutton (″Roc” and “The Corner”), Damon Evans (”The Jeffersons”), Tracie Thoms (”Rent” and “The Devil Wears Prada”) and Robert Chew, who portrayed Proposition Joe in “The Wire.”
Orange said the money will be used to buy new audience seating, lights and sound equipment. The exterior of the brick building will be refurbished and an entrance for people using wheelchairs now on the side of the building will be moved to the front. The second and third floors, which includes classrooms, dressing rooms and rehearsal space will be rebuilt.
The renovations are expected to be completed in early 2024.
But you don’t have to wait that long to visit the Arena Players (if you haven’t already): The theater’s production of “Stick Fly,” Lydia Diamond’s incisive examination of the Black upper class, runs Feb. 10 through Feb. 26. Tickets cost $35; masks are required.
Shutdown uproots the ‘Carrots’
After 15 years of producing experimental theater that earned this small semiprofessional troupe a cult following, Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theatre has permanently shut down.
There will be no more public productions this season, though the company will continue its educational programming through the end of the school year in June, according to Genevieve de Mahy, the group’s artistic director. Two of the four staff members have already found new jobs. De Mahy said the company has budgeted “generous severance packages” for the remaining two employees who will be laid off in the next four months.
“We are determined to put people first,” she said.
In 2007, 10 recent college graduates of the University of Colorado at Boulder selected Baltimore as the location for their fledgling troupe following a nationwide city search. The company’s quirky name came from a quote by the artist Paul Cézanne: “The day will come when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”
Single Carrot quickly gained a reputation for mounting offbeat, provocative shows that could not be seen anywhere else. For many years the company flourished, first in a 50-seat theater on North Avenue, and later in a larger building in Remington.
But sustaining that youthful momentum is no easy feat, especially for an organization staffed by young adults exploring many career options.
One by one, the founders left to pursue other projects. Eventually, De Mahy, the mother of two young children, was the only original group member left — and she began thinking about graduate school.
In addition, De Mahy said Single Carrot has not been immune from the post-pandemic struggles that other cultural groups have been experiencing nationwide, such as severe staff shortages.
“In the past few years, a lot of people have been pushing back against jobs that required them to be overworked and underpaid,” she said.
Key positions went unfilled for too long, resulting in the cancellation of two productions the theater had previously planned for early 2023: “BLKS” by Aziza Barnes and Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation.”
“Baltimore has always been a great city for arts groups to get started in, but not a great city to have careers in,” De Mahy said. “The funding just isn’t there. We have made significant strides in the past few years to become sustainable. But it turns out those strides weren’t big enough.”
A farewell party is planned for April or May.
Hippodrome Broadway season is a ‘Wiz’
The Hippodrome Theatre has released its 2023-24 line up of touring Broadway musicals — a slate that includes several new productions of familiar titles.
As audiences nationwide have been slow to return to live theater following the COVID-19 pandemic, Broadway has responded by staging fewer purely original musicals in favor of the theatrical equivalent of comfort food: new productions of hit shows from previous years, which are thought to be less risky financially.
The most newsworthy title on the Hippodrome’s roster is the revival of “The Wiz,” (Sept. 26 to Oct. 1) the all-Black version of “The Wizard of Oz” that changed the face of Broadway when it debuted in 1975. What is being described as a “pre-Broadway tour” — another name for a tryout — begins in Baltimore, where the musical made its world premiere 50 years ago. “The Wiz” is scheduled to open on Broadway for a limited engagement in the spring of 2024.
Baltimore audiences also will be the first in the nation to get a look at a new tour of “Peter Pan” that will be launched at the Hippodrome Feb. 20 to Feb. 25, 2024.
Another revival: “Funny Girl,” the 1964 musical with the boffo score that rocketed the young Barbra Streisand to fame also begins its first national tour this fall; it comes to the Hippodrome Oct. 24 to Oct. 29.
The remaining four selections on the Hippodrome’s schedule enjoyed successful previous lives as films:
“Moulin Rouge! the Musical,” (the multiple 2021 Tony award-winning musical is a remake of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film and comes to the Hippodrome Dec. 5 to Dec. 17); “Mrs. Doubtfire” (a 1993 movie starring Robin Williams, at the Hippodrome Jan. 30 to Feb. 4, 2024); “Beetlejuice” (a 1988 fantasy comedy horror film, comingto the Hippodrome June 25 to June 30, 2024) and “Clue — A New Comedy.” “Clue,” the only nonmusical in the subscription series, began life as a board game and morphed into a 1985 murder movie. It brings its dagger, lead pipe, rope and candlestick to the Hippodrome May 7 to May 12.
In addition to the seven-show series, add-on productions include “The Book of Mormon” (March 19 to March 24, 2024) and “Mama Mia! (April 16 to April 21).
Tickets for the seven-show subscription range from $263 to $1,100. For more information, go to baltimore.broadway.com.