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Baltimore's new star makes a debut tonight


With its opening gala tonight, the $62 million France-Merrick Performing Arts Center isn't simply introducing the lovingly restored 1914 vaudeville palace at its center, the Hippodrome Theatre. It is also declaring its intention of making Baltimore once again a force in the world of live theater.

The center's operators envision the new venue becoming an arts stadium of sorts, a live entertainment hub that will attract visitors from Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. They aim for it to compete with the top stages in Washington and Philadelphia for touring Broadway shows, classical music concerts featuring such artists as Itzhak Perlman, and the best national and international dance troupes.

"We want to establish the Hippodrome as a regional performing arts facility on the same level as the Kennedy Center," said Marks Chowning, executive director of Clear Channel Baltimore, which runs the complex.

It's a grand ambition for a theater complex just opening its first production, in a transitional west-side neighborhood full of boarded-up buildings and construction zones. But there are early signs that such concerns aren't scaring away theatergoers.

This year, 12,000 subscriptions have been sold for a season divided between the Mechanic and Hippodrome theaters - a huge increase over the 3,700 subscriptions sold last year for a series performed at the Mechanic.

The Hippodrome, on Eutaw Street between Baltimore and Fayette, already has scored some major coups. The Producers, the record-setting musical that inaugurates the theater tonight, won't appear in Washington until June. Another Broadway favorite, The Lion King, will play Charm City in 2005 and skip Washington altogether.

But the ultimate test, the one with the farthest-reaching consequences for the city's image, will be whether the Hippodrome can become a venue where producers road-test their Broadway-bound plays.

"Historically, Baltimore was a strong presence in the theater world. Lots of pre-Broadway engagements were booked here," Chowning said. "We would like to see that happen here again."

A tryout before a live audience is a crucial part of working the kinks out of a new show before it hits the Big Apple. For instance, Hairspray played for three weeks in Seattle before opening on Broadway.

"It's exciting to be a tryout town," said Margo Lion, the Baltimore-born producer of Hairspray. "You get to see the show before it's anywhere else, and you get to be the focus group. The out-of-town audience becomes a collaborator in the creation of the work."

Chowning will bring five dozen New York-based producers, theater company general managers and booking agents to Baltimore on March 8 to tour his new facility and to meet with city business leaders. "I'm looking forward to showing off this treasure to the theater industry," he said.

Among the Hippodrome's selling points: its proximity to New York, which lowers transportation costs, a new loading dock with the capacity to allow two tractor-trailers full of scenery to unload directly on stage, and moderate labor costs.

Being owned by entertainment conglomerate Clear Channel - which also produces its own shows - can't hurt the Hippodrome either.

Besides, Baltimore has a proud history of helping some of the nation's premier performers hone their acts.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the old Hippodrome was one of the nation's top vaudeville houses. Baltimore audiences applauded Red Skelton, the Three Stooges, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin an Jerry Lewis, and "the comedy team" of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman.

(Even then, there were signs that the old theater wasn't up to the demands of stage spectaculars. In 1922, a horse exiting the stage during a vaudeville act became wedged in a backstage door and had to be freed by firefighters.)

Just as the Hippodrome began to decline, the Mechanic Theatre, which opened in 1967, took over the job of bringing out-of-town talent to Baltimore.

The Mechanic has been host to more than two dozen Broadway tryouts since the late 1970s, primarily under the tenure of the theater's guiding light, the late Hope Quackenbush. She snagged the premieres of Grind; A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine; Othello; Lend Me A Tenor; Smile; The Graduate and the revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer.

She brought in such stars as Christopher Plummer, Ben Vereen, Yul Brynner, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones and Sir Laurence Olivier.

Then the late 1980s dealt the theater a double whammy: The economic downturn coupled with a new trend in theaters - the mega-musical.

"Touring theater is a relatively new convention," Chowning said. "Sure, you had some tours in the 1960s and 1970s, but the first musical that was as big on the road as it was in New York was Les Miserables, which began touring in 1988."

Such shows, laden with special effects, were enormously popular and profitable but placed unprecedented demands on theaters.

For instance, in Miss Saigon, the stage had to accommodate a helicopter taking off and flying into the wings. In The Phantom of the Opera, a 1,500-pound chandelier appears to plummet from the ceiling toward the floor.

The Mechanic simply couldn't fulfill the technical requirements. Instead, the largest touring shows set up camp south of the Beltway at the Kennedy Center. "Not having a theater in Baltimore that could accommodate those large productions really hurt the theater business here," Chowning said.

A full production of Miss Saigon never has been performed in Baltimore, although a smaller-scale version appeared in 2002 at the Lyric Opera House. The Phantom of the Opera will make its Baltimore debut at the Hippodrome this summer - 14 years after it began to tour.

Despite the advantages of his spacious new complex, Chowning knows that landing prestigious Broadway tryouts won't be easy. Those involved compare the process to bidding for the Olympics; theaters in several cities make their best pitches, and then the dickering begins.

Producers Lion (Hairspray), Alicia Parker (Chicago) and Tom Viertel (The Producers) say they consider these criteria when deciding in what city to hold a tryout: a sophisticated audience that can be expected to react similarly to New York theatergoers, flexible labor rules and a venue the producing team can afford to rent. They say that Baltimore qualifies for consideration in each category.

And Chowning aims to build his series ticket base to 16,000 over the next few years, a guarantee the house would be at least half-full for a two-week run.

Scheduling also matters: Does a theater have the specific weeks available that a tour is seeking for its tryout?

"All these Broadway touring seasons are booked 18 months in advance," Viertel said. "That will eliminate a lot of houses."

Hippodrome schedule

Four Broadway shows are among the events launching the new Hippodrome Theatre:

Tonight-March 14: The Producers

April 13-25: Les Miserables

May 11-30: Mamma Mia!

Aug. 11-Sept. 19: Phantom of the Opera

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