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An evening's enjoyment is in the details

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mr. and Mrs. Baltimore, it's your big night out, and we have just the place for you: reminiscent of glamorous days gone by, but with all the modern conveniences, someplace where you can spend a few hours attending a Broadway show, or the entire evening.

To help plan your visit, we've put together a user's guide to the newly renovated Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

Your night on the town starts when you arrive at the theater at 12 N. Eutaw St., where you have tickets to a musical in the "Broadway in Baltimore" series that previously ran at the Mechanic Theatre -- an anniversary gift from your kids.

Because you've decided to come early and get a bite to eat, your car glides right into one of the 400 spaces reserved for theater patrons in the Fayette garage (formerly the old Baltimore Grand garage) on Paca Street between Fayette and Baltimore streets.

Raining? And you've forgotten your umbrella? Don't fret -- the garage connects directly to the theater complex, so you never have to go outside.

Chances are that your neighbors, who are coming a bit later, will get into the Atrium garage at Fayette and Eutaw streets, cater-corner to the theater complex. Theater officials have reserved an additional 400 parking spaces there for the Hippodrome's visitors.

You've already told Mrs. Neighbor to go ahead and wear her sparkliest jewelry even though she may have to walk outside, because the west side neighborhood will feel safer than it has in the past. There will be more street lights, $40,000 worth of surveillance cameras, yellow-shirted public safety guides provided by Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, and increased police patrols on show nights.

Inside, the new ventilation system is going full-blast. You warm up as soon as you enter the building, so Mrs. Baltimore pays $2 and drops off her jacket in one of the three staffed coat checks in the complex.

Near the entrance, theater personnel take your electronic tickets (your son bought them online at Ticketmaster, along with prepaid garage parking, and printed them out at home), run the bar codes under a handheld scanner, and return them. Oops -- Mr. Baltimore has to go back to the car, where he left his wallet. But it's not a problem, because once scanned, the electronic ticket permits you to enter and leave the building at your convenience.

Your dinner destination, the Hipp Cafe, is located behind the box office at Baltimore and Eutaw streets. The pre-theater menu of tapas, or upscale appetizers, sounds, well, appetizing. Hmmm: Should you try the Duck Trap smoked salmon with salmon caviar? Or how about the crab and brie fondue? Or the chipotle chicken quesadilla?

You reluctantly pass on the Death by Chocolate cake and New York-style cheesecake, at least for now. Time is running short, and you can always return for dessert after the musical. The Hipp Cafe stays open on show nights for one hour after the final curtain.

You stroll to the elevator bank, which stops at the mezzanine, the middle balcony, and the upper balcony. Guided by the usher, you climb four rows to your seats; the stairs are pretty steep, so you don't mind so much that you skipped your Stairmaster class earlier today. But that verticality has its advantages. Mrs. Baltimore is petite, and she is grateful to not have to crane her neck to see around taller theater-lovers sitting in front of her.

Mr. Baltimore is 6 feet, 4 inches tall, and his knees bump the seat in front of him, but that's a problem for him everywhere. The seat width varies between 19 and 22 inches; comfortable for all but the chubbiest patrons.

For such a large theater, the Hippodrome feels surprisingly intimate. Unlike similar venues, the balcony does not jut out into the lobby. Instead, it begins at row L. The farthest seat is a still-reasonable 120 feet from the stage, much closer than the comparable chair in the Mechanic. (Clear Channel Entertainment runs both theaters.)

But you're sitting in what you consider to be the best seats in the house -- the center of the mezzanine, with a perfect view of the scarlet curtain with its gold rope trim, and the lovingly re-created mural.

The play starts, and Mrs. Baltimore allows herself to become absorbed in the action on stage instead of planning a bathroom break. Female patrons no longer need to master the strategy and pinpoint timing of commandos parachuting into occupied territory just to get into the restroom.

The Hippodrome has a luxurious 61 stalls for women, and 36 for men. After using the facilities at intermission, there's even time to buy a glass of wine at one of the five permanent concession stands within the performing arts center.

Oh no -- the lights are dimming, signaling that the second act will begin in moments.

But never fear, you won't have to gulp your drink. For most shows, you will be able to bring beverages inside the theater, just as you did at the Mechanic. Candy always has been semi-permitted; hence all those pre-show announcements that "if you must eat candy during the show, please unwrap it now."

After the final curtain, and before walking out to the car, you visit the curved wall covered with burgundy silk on the lower level. It displays old-time photographs of Baltimore's former movie palaces, historic shots of the downtown and west side, and production photos. Yes: there are several shots of the original Hippodrome.

You linger for a moment, comparing then and now. The renovated structure still is gorgeous, and unmistakably shows off its 1914 bones. It doesn't look exactly the same, of course.

But, after 90 years, what does?

Community open house

Take a tour from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 21 at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Information: 410-547-9289 or visit www.hippodromefoundation.org.

What's on stage

Three Broadway shows -- two of which are new to Baltimore -- will play the new Hippodrome Theatre this season:

* The Producers (Feb. 10-March 14): This musical adaptation of the Mel Brooks movie, in which a pair of crooked theater producers set out to make a surefire flop, won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards.

* Les Miserables (April 13-25): Among the first and best of the mega-musicals, this adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel remains a compelling study of the sometimes narrow line between good and evil.

* Mamma Mia! (May 11-30): From the title number to "Dancing Queen," nearly two dozen ABBA songs fill out this slim but fun tale of a young woman's search for her father.

For tickets: Call 410-481-SEAT, go online to www.ticketmaster.org (both include a service charge) or stop by the Hippodrome box office.

Theater information

* Parking: Besides Fayette Street and Atrium garages, two more parking facilities are within one block of the theater -- Central garage (Baltimore Street between Eutaw and Howard) and Redwood garage (corner of Eutaw and Redwood streets).

* Restrooms: Twelve total, six for men and six for women. Located on all three levels.

* Hipp Cafe: On Baltimore near Eutaw, open from breakfast through dinner for theater-goers and the general public. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., then 5 p.m. to one hour after final curtain. Closed most Mondays and on weekends when the theater is dark. Call 410-625-1401 (reservations not accepted).

* Information: 410-837-7400 or www.france-merrickpac.com

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