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Hearing-impaired patron sues Hippodrome Theatre

Is the Hippodrome Theatre doing enough for hearing-impaired customers?

A Baltimore woman filed suit Monday in federal court asking a judge to order the France Merrick Performing Arts Center to provide open-captioned performances for its hearing-impaired patrons.

Jessica Gill is a lifelong lover of musical theater with a severe hearing disability who became frustrated and angry after her efforts to see the musical "Newsies" at the theater were stymied. The show opens Tuesday night and runs through Sunday.

She filed suit against the Key Brand Theatrical Group, which has a contract to operate the historic theater, the nonprofit Hippodrome Foundation and the Maryland Stadium Authority, which undertook a $62 million renovation of the former vaudeville palace in 2004.

The suit alleges that by refusing to provide the closed captioning that provides a running transcription of the dialogue and lyrics — similar to supertitles in opera — the venue violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the suit, Gill communicated back and forth with the Hippodrome's staff from last January through July attempting to find a way to attend the show and follow the action on stage. She was told that the theater provides its hearing-impaired patrons with infrared hearing devices, audio descriptions and sign interpreters, but has made no provisions for open captioning.

Gill doesn't speak sign language and depends on reading lips to communicate, the lawsuit said. But the theater, which seats more than 2,000 patrons, is so vast that reading the performers' lips is all but impossible, according to the suit — even when the actors face the audience directly and aren't standing in profile or with their backs to part of the crowd.

The suit also noted that other venues in Baltimore, such as Center Stage, provide open captioning for their hearing-impaired customers.

"The Hippodrome was renovated in 2004, 14 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed," Gill's attorney, Joseph B. Espo, said in a telephone interview. "Instead, they keep offering solutions that aren't solutions for my client. They ought to know better."

On Thursday, Key Brand Entertainment released a statement in which spokesman Chris Boneau said, “We are sensitive to the needs of our disabled patrons and are committed to ensuring that all patrons can enjoy performances at the Hippodrome.  We have received the complaint and cannot make further comment until we have fully evaluated the allegations made in it.”

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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