Arena Players, Center stage deserve to take bows


The new theater season marks milestone anniversaries for two Baltimore theaters. Center Stage turns 40, and Arena Players, billed as "the nation's oldest continuously operating African-American theater," turns 50.

The fare at both is eclectic, and, indeed, variety is a keynote at most of the area's theaters for 2002-2003.

At Center Stage, variety comes in the form of a blend of old and new, starting with the season opener - artistic director Irene Lewis' new take on J.M. Barrie's classic, Peter Pan, starring Jefferson Mays as the boy who refuses to grow up.

Other highlights include the theater's first-ever co-production with Washington's Arena Stage, a revival of the Fats Waller revue Ain't Misbehavin' and two premieres that originated as Center Stage commissions, Warren Leight's No Foreigners Beyond This Point and Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel.

At Arena Players, the season begins with a revival of William Saroyan's one-act play Hello Out There, the first play produced at that theater five decades ago. Two other Arena favorites will also be revived: Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind and Paul Osborne's Morning's at Seven. And, in a season that offers a host of solid roles for women, one of the most moving plays promises to be Having Our Say, the chronicle of the real-life centenarian Delaney sisters.

The Mechanic Theatre will launch its season on a familiar note with 42nd Street, winner of the 2001 Tony Award for best musical revival. Mechanic audiences will also be treated to the Baltimore premieres of three recent New York musicals - The Full Monty, Seussical the Musical and tick, tick ... BOOM! (an autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, the late creator of Rent, which comes to the Lyric Opera House a month later).

The one nonmusical in the Mechanic's subscription series will be Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. The hit comedy stars Valerie Harper as a woman undergoing a midlife crisis.

Meanwhile, besides the return engagement of Rent, the Lyric will offer Baltimoreans their first look at two disparate musicals - Miss Saigon (albeit somewhat scaled down) and Some Like It Hot, the musical version of Billy Wilder's 1959 movie. Tony Curtis again stars, but this time, instead of playing one of the guys in drag, he plays the lovestruck tycoon.

On a more serious note, Everyman Theatre opens its season tonight with the Baltimore premiere of Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, an examination of the alleged Nazi sympathies of German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. The season, which also features several chestnuts - Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance and Moss Hart's Light Up the Sky - concludes with another local premiere, Craig Wright's bittersweet romance, The Pavilion.

Solo-performance shows will be among the main attractions at the Theatre Project, starting with Eleven Ex-Boyfriends Defend Their Actions, Karen Gray's commentary on sexual politics, and also including Essential Personnel, Al Letson's hip-hop take on incarceration and the African-American male, and I Tried to Be Normal, Frannie Sheridan's autobiographical piece about being raised Catholic by German refugee parents who hid their identity as Jewish Holocaust survivors.

In addition to the anniversary festivities at Arena Players, two very different local musical premieres are among the enticing programming at other community theaters. Fell's Point Corner Theatre kicks off its season next week with Parade, Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown's 1998 Broadway musical about the 1913 Atlanta lynching of Jewish businessman Leo Frank. And AXIS Theatre will wrap up its season with the hard-rocking, cross-dressing off-Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

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