N.Y. producers expected to restore luster as pre-Broadway theater New deal can help Mechanic clean up its act

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After a financially and artistically troubled season, the Mechanic Theatre is joining forces with a major New York producing organization -- a move expected to bring higher-quality theater to Baltimore, including shows trying out for Broadway.

The partnership with Jujamcyn Theaters and Productions, which owns five Broadway theaters and manages venues in a half dozen cities throughout the United States, should also pave the way for long-term financial stability.

In the short term, its impact can already be felt. The 1995-1996 season announced yesterday includes a pre-Broadway engagement of Tommy Tune's new musical, "Buskers," as the subscription season opener. Also, two of Jujamcyn's most acclaimed productions, "Angels in America" and "The Who's Tommy," may be included as non-subscription offerings.

Jujamcyn's official role will be that of consultant on booking and management for the Mechanic.

"We had to find a way to improve the series that we brought to Baltimore, and . . . the Jujamcyn people offered us an opportunity to do that," said board president Roger C. Lipitz, who described the arrangement with the powerful and innovative Jujamcyn organization as a potentially "win-win situation."

Speaking after a meeting here yesterday with representatives of the theater's board and management, Paul Libin, producing director of Jujamcyn Theaters, acknowledged the Mechanic is coming out of a difficult season. But, he explained, "We're a company that's committed to expanding our influence and participation across America, both in New York and the major cities across the country, and we feel that Baltimore has an extraordinary potential. . . . We're picking the cities carefully and making sure we're going to come up hits."

From a high of more than 22,000 subscribers in the mid-1980s, Mechanic subscriptions have declined in recent years, reaching the mid- to low-teens last season, according to Mr. Lipitz, who said current renewals are down 20 percent.

The 1994-1995 season, which suffered from repeated schedule changes, wound up with only two profitable shows -- "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Man of La Mancha," said Steve Goldstein, who is resigning after two seasons as general manager.

"The opportunity for Jujamcyn to come in and take over and be involved in the booking and management was such a great situation for the theater. However, it just seemed that they were taking over much of the job that I've been doing, and so I decided to make way for it to happen," Mr. Goldstein explained. Local management duties will be assumed by Brian Liddicoat, who has served as the Mechanic's theater manager since 1993.

For the 1995-1996 season, the runs of subscription shows will be limited to two weeks. Also, shows will be presented exclusively at the Mechanic. (Since 1982, the subscription series has presented its larger musicals at the Lyric Opera House; two seasons ago it decreased the length of its engagements from four weeks to three, and last season the runs of the two larger musicals were further decreased to two weeks.)

"Our role here is to try and get back the sizzle in the steak, so to speak, that Baltimore's had for 20-some years being a very prime player in the theater industry," said Michael J. Brand, executive director of Jujamcyn Productions.

Part of that sizzle will be the opportunity for Jujamcyn to return Baltimore to its former glory as a tryout town for shows headed to Broadway.

An indication of the city-wide interest in the Mechanic is the recent appointment of Frank P. Bramble Sr. as chairman of the newly expanded 18-member board of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which administers the Mechanic. Mr. Bramble is president and chief executive officer of First National Bank of Maryland, and vice chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Describing the Jujamcyn arrangement as "a wonderful opportunity," Mr. Bramble said, "What's really going to make this thing work is that this is going to be a case where a true public-private partnership is occurring for the benefit of the residents of this marketplace, and that's why I agreed to come on as chairman."

Mr. Bramble also spoke optimistically about the potential impact of this partnership on the new performing arts center proposed for the Mount Royal cultural corridor. "I think we're going to do some very exciting and creative things in the short run at the Mechanic, and in the long run, I think we'll have a new Broadway-style theater somewhere in the future," he said.

Hope Quackenbush, who retired in 1993 after 15 years as the Mechanic's managing director, began courting Jujamcyn during her last season heading the theater. "I was really beginning to get worried about what was happening in the business," said Mrs. Quackenbush, who remains an active member of the theater's board and is also president of an independent planning group for the proposed performing arts center.

"If you don't have control of product, you have to have a lot of money to invest in product to bring it in. We're not in that position. Jujamcyn is probably the premiere presenting company Broadway as we speak, and I feel very pleased that they're interested in partnering with us and presenting our product."

Kathy Levin, a Baltimore-based Broadway producer and Mechanic board member who works in partnership with Jujamcyn on a mutual fund she co-created for Broadway shows, was instrumental in forging the link with Jujamcyn.

"When Roger [Lipitz] came to me, I said I don't want business as usual at the Mechanic. We're in a gully in Baltimore, and we need not be. We need a player on our side. Let's go to the best player. The fit was fabulous," Ms. Levin said. "Jujamcyn is looking at key cities. Baltimore is ripe for partnership. . . . [It's] also a big enough market to merit a showcase of some hot new products Jujamcyn has taken to other cities where they've transformed small-time theater towns, like Omaha and Green Bay, into Broadway business."

Jujamcyn, named for its owner's three children -- Judy, James and Cynthia -- is the smallest of the three major Broadway theater companies; the others are the Shubert Organization and the Nederlander Organization. Unlike those companies, Jujamcyn does not focus on booking existing blockbusters. Instead, it concentrates on developing and producing new works for Broadway. Jujamcyn Productions, which will handle the Mechanic, is the branch of the company devoted to out-of-town markets.

Jujamcyn's involvement represents the third time in the Mechanic's 28-year history that a New York producer has been brought in to book or manage the theater. The Nederlanders ran the theater for its first two seasons. Then nearly a decade later, when the non-profit Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts was formed, it hired impresario Alexander Cohen, who was in charge of the Mechanic for another two years.

The return to the Mechanic name is expected to have an immediate positive effect. Now that all of the shows will be presented there, the subscription is being billed as "the Mechanic Broadway Series." Besides the advantage of seeing productions in a more intimate theater, Mr. Goldstein said, "The public has always perceived us as 'the Mechanic.' Emotionally the Mechanic is our home. Our heart is there, and so from our point of view we're coming home."

THE 1995-1996 SEASON

* "Buskers": pre-Broadway engagement of the new musical starring Tommy Tune as a British street performer. Sept. 13-24

* "An Inspector Calls": first stop on national tour of the Royal National Theatre's revival of J. B. Priestley's 1946 thriller. Oct. 17-29

* "Kiss of the Spider Woman": Kander and Ebb's 1993 Tony Award-winning musical, starring Chita Rivera. (Replaces "State Fair.") Nov. 7-19

* "Three Tall Women": Edward Albee's 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner based on the life of his adoptive mother. March 5-17, 1996

* "Jekyll & Hyde": pre-Broadway engagement of composer Frank Wildhorn and librettist Leslie Bricusse's musical version of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. March 26-April 7, 1996

* "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying": first stop on national tour of director Des McAnuff's 1995 Broadway revival. June 11-23

New subscriptions to the six-play Mechanic Theatre season range from $150-$300. Call (410) 625-4200.

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