On area stages, Jushner, O Keeffe and music galore


New plays and old musicals will highlight the 1994-1995 theater season, giving Baltimore audiences a chance to see actors on the cutting edge and hoofers who can cut a rug.

With the new play becoming nearly an endangered species, the presence of several at area theaters is something of a coup for Baltimore. But if the city is ahead of the pack in terms of plays, it's smack-dab in the middle when it comes to musical revivals, which have begun to outnumber new musicals not only on the road but on Broadway as well.

Heading the list of new plays are several major area premieres. Despite its derogatory title, "Dirt" -- which will open the Baltimore Broadway subscription series at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Nov. 1 -- should get the season off to a serious, hard-hitting start. Presented by the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, this drama by Bruce Gooch is about the relationship between an elderly farmer suffering from dementia and his adult son. Ralph Waite, best known as the father on "The Waltons," will star. He replaces James Whitmore, who has withdrawn due to illness.

In the spring, the same series presents the first Broadway tryout to play the Mechanic since 1991. Based on the marriage of artist Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, "Flowers and Photos" (April 4-23) is by Lanie Robertson, author of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara star.

Meanwhile, Center Stage will produce the latest work by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, whose Broadway triumph, "Angels in America," made him perhaps the most exciting playwright in the country today. Kushner's new play, "Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness)" (Jan. 6-Feb. 18), is composed partly of outtakes from "Perestroika," the second half of the two-part epic "Angels."

If "Slavs!" whets your appetite for more of Kushner's work, you'll be able to see "Angels in America" at Washington's Kennedy Center in May.

The Kennedy Center will open its season Tuesday with an area premiere -- Pearl Cleage's "Flyin' West." Ruby Dee and Tony Award-winning Baltimore actress Trazana Beverley star in this tale of a family of women in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kan., in 1898.

Returning to Center Stage, among the other new-and-different offerings, is a series of three one-woman shows jointly titled "The Feminine Singular: Women Speak Solo." Dates and performers aren't finalized, but under consideration are Claudia Shear in her off-Broadway hit, "Blown Sideways Through Life," and a return engagement by Rhodessa Jones, who sold out her appearance last year in the theater's Off Center series. That series will continue in 1995. Top contenders are Eric Bogosian and Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith.

The Theatre Project is the local grande dame of the avant-garde. Highlights this season will include Claudia Stevens in "Playing Paradise" (Sept. 28-Oct. 2), about a woman's discovery of her parents' hidden identity as Holocaust survivors, and Lisa Kotin in "Temporary Girl" (Nov. 30-Dec. 18) and "The Office Christmas Party" (Dec. 7-18), two dark one-act comedies about life at the bottom of the corporate ladder.

In addition, 1995 will be the third and last year of the U.S./Netherlands Touring and Exchange Project, which has given Baltimoreans an opportunity to follow the work of three Dutch companies -- Onafhankelijk Toneel, Truus Bronkhorst and Stuffed Puppet Theatre. The Theatre Project will also continue its local residencies program; companies scheduled thus far are Impossible Industrial Action and Mother Lode.

On the lighter side, Performing Arts Productions, which presents touring shows at the Lyric Opera House, is also bringing in an area premiere -- Tim Conway's "Just for Laughs" (Nov. 3-6). Conway and Tom Poston co-star as 1950s TV writers.

This is a change for Performing Arts Productions, which specializes in musical revivals and is presenting three this season -- "Grease" (Nov. 22-27), "Oliver!" (Dec. 27-Jan. 1) and the 30th anniversary tour of "Hello, Dolly!" (Feb. 7-12), with Carol Channing in the role she has reportedly played more than 4,000 times.

In addition, the Baltimore Broadway Series has scheduled two musical oldies-but-goodies at the Lyric -- "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (Jan. 17-29) and "Damn Yankees" (May 16-28).

Even Center Stage will get into the musical revival business this season with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's jazzy 1929 gangland musical, "Happy End" (Feb. 12-April 2).

At the smaller theaters, area play premieres will give audiences a chance to see shows that might not make it to the city's larger venues.

At the Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore, these include Steve Tesich's "On the Open Road" (Nov. 3-27), a futuristic tragicomedy, and Michael Dale's "Boys and Girls Together" (Feb. 2-March 5), a baseball play whose characters include Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. AXIS Theatre's intriguing line-up includes Daniel Sullivan's "Inspecting Carol" (Nov. 15-Dec. 18), about an embattled theater, and Steven Dietz's "God's Country" (Jan. 10-Feb. 12), about the murder of a Jewish talk-show host.

Some of the challenging new titles at other community theaters are Endesha Holland's "From the Mississippi Delta" (March 17-April 9) at Arena Players; John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation" (Sept. 23-Oct. 30) at Fell's Point Corner Theatre; Herb Gardner's "Conversations with my Father" (Feb. 3-March 5) at the Spotlighters; and Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden" (June 23-July 23) at the Vagabonds.

Nor are old musicals being completely ignored on the little theater scene: The Musical Theatre Machine will re-stage its impressive 1993 production of "Into the Woods" as Theatre Hopkins' annual outdoor production at Evergreen House in June.

What's happening on Broadway? Not much.

Less than a half-dozen openings are scheduled before the first of the year. Two of those, however, will be blockbusters. Director Harold Prince's revisionist revival of "Show Boat" opens Oct. 2, -- and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" opens Nov. 17.

In the second half of the season, one of the few non-musicals is expected to be Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl." The story of a Holocaust survivor, it will be co-produced by Baltimorean Kathy Levin.

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