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Changes coming up at the Mechanic and Theatre Project A Sizzling Season FALL ARTS PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Audiences will see two big changes in the local theater scene when the curtain rises on the 1995-1996 season.

First, the Mechanic Theatre has formed a partnership with Broadway's influential Jujamcyn organization. Jujamcyn's impact can already be felt in the high caliber of Broadway tryouts and touring productions slated for the Mechanic.

Second, the Theatre Project has undergone a major shift in mission. Departing from its role as one of the country's leading importers of international avant-garde work, the Preston Street theater will now showcase productions by Baltimore's independent theaters.

The changes at the Mechanic are evident with its very first show, "Buskers," which opens Wednesday, before arriving on Broadway next month. Based on a 1938 movie called "St. Martin's Lane," this old-fashioned musical stars Tommy Tune as a British street performer, or "busker," and has a score by the Sherman brothers, best-known for "Mary Poppins."

Although big new Broadway musicals are a relative rarity these days, "Buskers" is one of two that will play pre-Broadway runs at the Mechanic. The other is Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn's "Jekyll & Hyde" (March 26-April 7), which has already spawned two popular albums. Both of these musicals have been around for a while, during which they've undergone some significant overhauls, most of whose results should be in place by the time they reach Baltimore.

The Mechanic season will also include two recent proven Broadway hit musicals -- "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (Nov. 8-19), starring Chita Rivera, and the revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" (June 11-23) -- as well as a pair of award-winning plays, Edward Albee's 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, "Three Tall Women" (Feb. 28-March 10), and the Tony Award-winning Royal National Theatre revival of "An Inspector Calls" (Oct. 17-29).

Two other Mechanic Theatre highlights will be nonsubscription one-week runs of Tony Kushner's magnificent two-part epic exploration of AIDS, religion and politics: "Angels in America" (Nov. 21-26), and "The Who's Tommy" (May 14-19).

The Theatre Project is probably as far away as you can get from the commercial gloss of Broadway. But on a much smaller, less conventional level, its new local focus is also a vote of confidence in Baltimore -- specifically, in the growth of the city's independent theaters.

As evidence of the strength of its commitment, the Theatre Project has appointed artistic associates from three of these theater companies -- Desire Productions, Impossible Industrial Action and Mother Lode. And, of the 17 productions announced for the 25th anniversary season, all but one are local.

A sampling of the home-grown fare includes: Splitting Image's ,, "Lapis Blue, Blood Red" (Nov. 8-19), based on the life of baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi; Desire Productions' "Chatter and Static" (Nov. 29-Dec. 10), an original opera satirizing talk shows, and Mongrel Theatre's "Judith" (May 29-June 9), an ensemble piece about the Biblical heroine.

At Center Stage, the news of the new includes a world premiere -- "The Lover" (Feb. 16-March 31), Elizabeth Egloff's adaptation of Turgenev's "On the Eve," a novel about a privileged, sheltered Russian girl in love with a Bulgarian revolutionary during the Crimean War.

"The Lover" exemplifies the theme of the war between the sexes, which runs through most of the season's offerings, beginning with Moliere's "Don Juan" (Oct. 6-Nov. 5) and continuing with Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" (Jan. 5-Feb. 4); "Spunk" (March 22-April 21), George C. Wolfe's adaptation of three Zora Neale Hurston stories; and, tentatively scheduled, Noel Coward's "Private Lives" (May 3-June 2).

In addition, Center Stage will present its first double bill of one-act plays in a decade and a half. Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence" and Shirley Lauro's "Open Admissions" (Nov. 10-Dec. 23) are both studies of race relations.

Meanwhile, back on the road to Broadway, Washington's Kennedy Center will have several pre-Broadway engagements: Terrence McNally's "Master Class" (Sept. 14-Oct. 22) starring Zoe Caldwell as Maria Callas; a new revival of "The King and I" (Dec. 27-Feb. 4); and the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Feb. 20-March 17), which will mark the RSC's return to Broadway after an eight-year absence. Also, Disney's Broadway hit, "Beauty and the Beast," will begin an open-ended run at the Kennedy Center on June 1.

Also in Washington, fans of the bard won't want to miss Stacy Keach playing the title role in "Macbeth" (Sept. 12-Nov. 5) at the Shakespeare Theatre.

Back home at the Lyric Opera House, Performing Arts Productions' bill of popular fare begins with "Damn Yankees" (Sept. 26-Oct. 1), starring Jerry Lewis as the devil himself. It also includes Roddy McDowall in "Dial M for Murder" (Oct. 24-29), "She Loves Me" (Dec. 26-31), "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber" (Jan. 30-Feb. 4), and "Carousel" (March 19-24), the second Royal National Theatre revival to wend its way to Baltimore this season. The Lyric offerings will conclude with a nonsubscription booking of Theodore Bikel in the 30th anniversary tour of "Fiddler on the Roof" (May 7-12).

On Baltimore's little theater scene, the most popular playwright will be 1994 Tony Award winner, Terrence McNally. Besides the professional productions of his "Master Class," at the Kennedy Center, and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," at the Mechanic, McNally will be represented by three community theater productions: "A Perfect Ganesh" (Oct. 17-Nov. 19) at AXIS Theatre, "The Lisbon Traviata" (Jan. 12-Feb. 4) at Everyman Theatre, and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart"( May 10-June 16) at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.

Among the challenging offerings at other little theaters will be two plays by Ibsen: "An Enemy of the People" (Oct. 20-Nov. 12) at Arena Players and "The Lady from the Sea" (Feb. 16-March 17) at Theatre Hopkins. On a more modern note, following up on last season's successful bill of one-acts by the outrageous Charles Busch, the Spotlighters will present his "Psycho Beach Party" (Feb. 2-March 3). And, the Vagabond Players is reviving one of Stephen Sondheim's cult musicals, "Merrily We Roll Along" (Nov. 10-Dec. 17).

What's up in New York? Well, Sondheim, for one thing. The composer will have two major Broadway revivals: "Company" (now in previews at the Roundabout Theater) and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (beginning in March && at a theater to be announced). In terms of new shows, pickings remain slim, but in addition to the tryouts mentioned above, the most anticipated Broadway musical is "Victor/Victoria," with Julie Andrews reprising her movie role (beginning Oct. 3 at the Marquis Theatre).

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