The Lyric Opera House, one of Baltimore's premier theatrical venues, has fallen dark for several weeks this season as four of its five national touring shows have been canceled. The no-shows, which include Elton John's Aida, have left patrons with useless tickets and the building's management scrambling to recoup losses.
The Lyric, which also is the home of the Baltimore Opera Company, hosts a subscription series of touring shows that are booked by Performing Arts Productions, part of the Baltimore-based company Baci Management. Baci is facing similar problems at theaters in Washington and Virginia.
"We've worked with Performing Arts for many years, and they've had very successful seasons at the Lyric with a variety of large-scale Broadway-style productions," said Lyric executive director Sandy Richmond. "At the very least," he said, the Lyric will offer credit for future productions to patrons who purchased tickets through Performing Arts Productions. However, he added that he hopes Performing Arts will give its patrons their money back.
The Lyric, a 112-year-old rental facility, is located at 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. and operated by the nonprofit Lyric Foundation. The loss of the Performing Arts subscription shows - which typically run one week each - represents about 10 percent of the Lyric's roster, to date. "But we're also out a considerable amount of money and revenue because of whatever situation they're involved with," Richmond said.
Though he said he was unable to give exact figures, Richmond described the monetary loss as "huge." Aida alone, he said, represented "hundreds of thousands in potential sales." Some of the revenue would have gone to the Lyric and the show itself, but there would also have been "tax revenue for surrounding localities, restaurants, clubs after shows, parking - a variety of things. Making a cancellation like that, it's like a domino effect."
Repeated attempts to reach Baci's president, Nicholas Litrenta, were unsuccessful. And calls to Michael E. Kaminkow, an attorney representing Litrenta, also were not returned.
Court records in Baltimore city and county show more than 30 lawsuits, a number for unpaid bills, brought against Litrenta and his companies over the past five years.
A 2006 case, filed by a company that made Baci a loan, resulted in a judgment of more than $300,000 against Litrenta and Baci. The Lyric brought a suit in 2003 for more than $22,000 for unpaid bills; the case was subsequently settled for an undisclosed amount. Other suits have been filed by creditors including broadcast stations and newspapers, where Baci advertised shows. (The Tribune Co., which owns The Sun, brought one of these cases, for more than $25,000, on behalf of its Newport News, Va., paper, The Daily Press).
"This is not a Baltimore issue," said Marks Chowning, the executive director of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre and a vice president of Live Nation, which operates Washington's Warner Theatre.
Five shows that Baci was to have presented at the Warner also have been canceled this season. "[Litrenta] is at a place in the industry now that agents are not going to sell him product anymore because they're not sure the dates are going to play and there's potential financial risk," said Chowning.
In Richmond, Va., where Baci has booked shows since the late 1980s, the scheduled run of Aida went on as announced at the city-run Landmark Theater. But several other shows did not, according to Linwood Norman, a spokesman for the mayor's office. One of these, a stage version of the movie Casablanca, was also to have been part of Baci's seasons in Norfolk, Va., and at the Lyric. In Norfolk and Richmond, Casablanca was replaced by another show. No replacement was announced for Baltimore.
No one contacted in Washington, Norfolk or Richmond offered an explanation for why the shows have been canceled. In Norfolk, where the theater, Chrysler Hall, is also city-run, a statement was issued five days before the scheduled opening of the next show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, saying that Baci had postponed the engagement and planned to reschedule it for "late fall/winter 2007." "No reason for the postponement has been given," the statement said.
The Baltimore cancellations have left subscribers stranded and concerned. Ricky Wiles, an employee of Chevy Chase Bank, subscribed for the first time this season. Attracted by the lineup of shows, he paid $351.25 for box seats. "I'm a subscriber - supposedly - but no shows have happened," he said. Wiles said Performing Arts told him that a refund for Aida would appear on his credit card account in January. But the credit hasn't shown up, and together with refunds for other cancellations, he is now owed $189.75, which he was told to expect by the end of this month.
Rich Widener of Glen Burnie was more fortunate. A subscriber to the Performing Arts series for 10 years, on and off, he received a full refund of $400 for his two subscriptions after taking his complaint to a local television station. "On Aida, we got two days' notice. They called my cell phone," he said.
In some cases, the Baci company may have been a victim of the bad luck that can befall touring shows. For example, the proposed production of Casablanca simply never went on the road. In the case of a revival of On Golden Pond, scheduled to open in Baltimore last November, the cast was to have included Richard Chamberlain and Hayley Mills. When the tour went out with Tom Bosley and Michael Learned instead, Baci removed the show from its seasons.
Poor ticket sales was the reason given for the last-minute withdrawal of Aida in December, but no explanation has been made for eliminating a revival of Cabaret, which was to have played a one-week run beginning Feb. 27. The fate of the final show, a tribute to Ray Charles titled I Can't Stop Loving You, has not been determined.
Litrenta, who began his show-business career as a concert promoter, started offering a subscription series at the Lyric in the mid-1990s and continued until fall 2003, when another presenter, TheatreDreams, came in with a five-show series. Two of its shows, however, fell by the wayside, and the company pulled out. "We just couldn't develop the audience," its chairman, William W. Becker, said last week. "We loved the city. We loved the Lyric. We just found we couldn't continue to make a go of it."
Almost exactly a year ago, Litrenta announced his return to a full subscription season at the Lyric for 2006-2007.
Stepping in to retain two non-subscription shows that Litrenta had scheduled, the Lyric has partnered with national tour producer, Magic Arts & Entertainment. Lord of the Dance ran as scheduled two weekends ago, although one performance was canceled due to lack of sales. Jesus Christ Superstar is scheduled to open in May.