A season keeping children in mind

The Baltimore Sun

Next season, more customers at the Hippodrome Theatre may be wearing mittens clipped to their coat sleeves.

The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center (which houses the Hippodrome) always makes sure that a certain number of the shows it books each year is suitable for middle-school students and teens. But for the first time, its subscription series will include two musicals geared specifically toward elementary-school children.

The 2008-2009 season is scheduled to be unveiled at a news conference this morning.

In November, the Grinch - with his green skin and a heart that is "two sizes too small" - moves into the Hippodrome to star in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical.

The holidays will barely be over when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rattles onto the stage Jan. 6. The musical is based on the beloved children's book-turned-film about a flying car.

"Every market is a little bit different, and the Baltimore audience wants a product that they can enjoy with their families," says Stella Benkler, the Hippodrome's new executive director. "Getting younger audiences interested in and involved in the theater is where our future lies as an art form."

Benkler expects both shows to have broad appeal, not just for children, but for their Generation X parents, who may fondly remember these stories from their own childhoods. In addition, she says, Baltimore will inaugurate the national tour of Grinch.

"We want to position Baltimore as a market for bringing in new product," she says.

"This will be the second national tour that we've launched in the five years that we have been at the Hippodrome. In 2006, our audience was the first group of theatergoers to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee after it left New York."

The 2008-2009 season will consist of six musicals and one drama. Though the lineup lacks such blockbusters of previous years as The Producers, The Lion King or Wicked, all seven shows are proven performers with strong production values (sets, costumes, lights).

The Kennedy Center's 2008-2009 theater season, which was announced last week, is also filled with reliable audience draws but no megahits.

The two cities' Broadway seasons will overlap. Baltimore and Washington will each present Legally Blonde and Spring Awakening - and both will appear first in Charm City.

"Producers realize that Baltimore is more centralized than D.C.," Benkler says. "We draw audiences from a wider area."

And not every show in next season's schedule will target the swing-set set. More mature fare will include A Bronx Tale, a coming-of-age tale in which the young narrator witnesses a murder while sitting on his front steps, and Spring Awakening, a groundbreaking exploration of morality, sex and music in the late 1800s.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

2008-2009 subscription series

Legally Blonde the Musical. Sept. 30-Oct. 12. The stage show was inspired by the film starring Reese Witherspoon as sorority sister Elle Woods, who puts down her credit card and picks up a set of law books after her Harvard-bound boyfriend dumps her for someone more "serious." It should be interesting to see whether a less famous performer can fill Witherspoon's 5-inch stilettos.

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The musical. Nov. 11-23. The Hippodrome's holiday fable is directed by Jack O'Brien, who has won three Tony Awards, and includes such beloved tunes as "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."

A Chorus Line, Dec. 2-14. This fictionalized account of an audition for a new Broadway musical can be seen as a precursor to reality television shows. The 1975 musical was based on taped interviews with real-life stage "gypsies" who flit from show to show.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Jan. 6-18. The musical is being retooled after its successful Broadway run but is still expected to feature its famous title song and its romance between inventor Caractacus Potts and the high-born Truly Scrumptious.

Grease, Feb. 3-15. The lead roles of Sandy Dumbrowski and Danny Zuko were picked early last year by viewers of NBC's reality series Grease: You're the One That I Want! There's no word yet whether winners Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, who appeared on Broadway, will join the national tour.

A Bronx Tale, April 14-26, 2009. Actor Chazz Palminteri will portray 18 characters in the one-performer show that he wrote and loosely based on his own childhood growing up in a tough neighborhood controlled by the Mafia.

Spring Awakening, June 9-21, 2009. Winner of eight 2007 Tony Awards, including best musical, Spring Awakening is based on an 1891 play about adolescent sexual exploration in Germany. Frank Wedekind's drama was so controversial it was banned from the stage and not performed in its entirety for nearly 100 years.

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