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Big shows coming to new venue


Long runs of two long-awaited shows - Baltimore's first engagement of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera and the Mid-Atlantic premiere of Disney's The Lion King - will highlight a musical-laden 2004-2005 subscription season at the Hippodrome Theatre. Four other large musicals are also part of the lineup, as well as Say Goodnight Gracie, a one-man show about George Burns, a performer who played the Hippodrome back in its vaudeville days.

The musicals include two Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnuts, The King and I and Oklahoma!, along with the fresh-from-Broadway touring productions of the 2002 Tony Award-winning musical Thoroughly Modern Millie and Little Shop of Horrors.

With the season announcement coming only nine days after the renovated Hippodrome's grand opening, Marks Chowning, executive director of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center (which includes the Hippodrome), reported that the theater's inaugural presentation of The Producers played to 88 percent capacity in its first week. (Tickets are still available; the run continues through March 14.)

"There's been a demand for first-run, big-show product here. We are finally able to accommodate that and people are responding," Chowning said. Nor is it only the Baltimore metropolitan area that is responding.

"Thirty percent of subscribers are now coming from areas that have been considered Washington suburban areas and have historically brought people to the Kennedy Center or the National to see Broadway product as opposed to coming to Baltimore," he said.

"I think we'll see that number increase because we've got a really strong, well-balanced, family-oriented, for the most part, season here. Young and old, theater lovers or not, you're going to get the eclectic crowd with Little Shop, traditionalists with Oklahoma!, the older set with Goodnight Gracie; Phantom and Lion King are just broadly appealing."

Chowning also believes the next season will see an overall increase in subscribers from the current 12,400 to 15,000-16,000.

Describing theatergoers' initial response to the Hippodrome, Eric P. Grubman, chairman of the Hippodrome Foundation, said, "What has been reflected back to me has been unanimously positive. There were questions about the neighborhood and parking and, 'Is it really ready?' There still are questions, but the first litmus test ... is [exceeding] our hopes."

With the center's restaurant, the Hipp Cafe, scheduled to open tomorrow and a $29.95 pre-show buffet due to start up in the center's M & T Pavilion March 2, the Hippodrome experience appears to be becoming increasingly user friendly, an approach reinforced by the largely mainstream nature of the 2004-2005 offerings.

Here's a closer look:

The Phantom of the Opera, begins Aug. 11. Two weeks ago, Lloyd Webber's 1988 Tony Award winner became the second longest running show in Broadway history. Until the Hippodrome reopened, however, no Baltimore theater was large enough to present this spectacle based on Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel about a mysterious masked man who haunts the Paris Opera. The show is expected to run at least six weeks.

Thoroughly Modern Millie, Nov. 2-14. This thoroughly old-fashioned musical comedy is based on George Roy Hill's 1967 movie about a Midwestern girl who comes to New York in 1922 looking for adventure - and a rich husband. The show has a book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, and nine new songs with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Scanlan.

The King and I, Feb. 1-13. Stefanie Powers stars as governess Anna Leonowens in this new touring production of the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Powers, who last appeared in Baltimore in 1996 in a revival of Applause, played Leonowens in a British production two seasons ago. Direction is by Baayork Lee, who appeared in the original Broadway production as a child.

Say Goodnight Gracie - The Life, Laughter & Love of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Feb. 22-March 6. Impressionist Frank Gorshin plays Burns in Rupert Holmes' 2002 Broadway show. Discounting concerns about presenting a one-man show in the 2,286-seat Hippodrome, Chowning says, "If you know anything about Frank Gorshin, he's got a big personality, so I don't think he'll have any problem filling the room."

Oklahoma!, March 15-27. This touring production of the groundbreaking musical is adapted from the revival Cameron Mackintosh produced on Broadway in 2002. That, in turn, originated at Britain's Royal National Theatre in 1998 under Trevor Nunn's direction.

Little Shop of Horrors, April 19-May 1. With a book and lyrics by the late Baltimorean Howard Ashman and a score by Alan Menken, this 1982 off-Broadway hit about love in a skid row florist shop graduated to Broadway this season.

The Lion King, begins June 3. This regional premiere is a coup for the Hippodrome. Based on Disney's 1994 animated film, the Tony Award-winning musical has a score by Elton John and Tim Rice. Tony Award winner Julie Taymor directed the show, designed its magnificent African-inspired costumes and co-designed its masks and puppets.

Season subscriptions cost $116-$617. For more information, call 800-343-3103 or visit www.broadwayacrossameri (Note: Reservations are required for the pre-show buffet that begins March 2; call 410-625-1401.)

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