'Producers' will be new theater's first play

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The thematic connection may be largely coincidental, but there's no denying the serendipity of opening the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center with the Baltimore-Washington premiere of The Producers, which will inaugurate the renovated theater with a five-week run beginning in February 2004.

"The story of The Producers is so much what we want the story of the Hippodrome to be," explained Marks Chowning, the Hippodrome's newly appointed executive director. The Mel Brooks musical tells the tale of a conniving pair of producers who try to mount a deliberate flop, only to have it turn out to be a monster hit.

"Here we are with a project, the Hippodrome, that everybody said would never get done," Chowning said, "and here's a show that's about something that's not going to succeed, that turns out to be a tremendous success. So, that's what we feel the Hippodrome is going to be."

Chowning made this comparison in announcing the seven-show 2003-2004 season, which will be officially unveiled at a press conference today at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Marking the transition from the Mechanic Theatre to the Hippodrome, the season will start off with four shows at the Mechanic and continue with three more at the refurbished $62.7 million, 2,250-seat Hippodrome.

The Mechanic offerings begin with Broadway's latest megahit, Hairspray, which will launch its national tour here in September, and also include A Night with Dame Edna, The Exonerated and a return engagement of The Graduate. At the Hippodrome, the second half of the season will include three large-scale musicals - The Producers, a return engagement of Les Miserables and Mamma Mia!

The seven-show lineup is the largest subscription series since 1999-2000. The series will also be distinguished by a return to two-week runs, with two shows booked even longer -The Producers for five weeks, and Mamma Mia! for three.

Projected paid attendance for the first calendar year at the Hippodrome is 450,000 for more than 200 performances. In addition, "there will probably be another 60 or 70 performances of other shows - dance, concerts, black theater, holiday programming. There's room in the calendar for other community events," Chowning said. "We want the community to feel that they belong to the building and the building belongs to them."

The Camden Yards setting for today's announcement typifies the kind of synergy Chowning and the Hippodrome Foundation (the new name for the non-profit Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts) hopes to foster, in this case, with the Orioles. "We're going to ... co-market to each other's subscribers, give their patrons advance notice of priority ticket sales, and hopefully have the same opportunity for our subscribers," he said.

"I think this is going to be really different for Baltimore and will give Baltimore the opportunity to market itself in a way that was pretty rare before," said Eric P. Grubman, chairman of the foundation. Grubman believes shows like The Producers, which is playing Baltimore before any other city in the region, will help make the theater a magnet for visitors from throughout the mid-Atlantic.

He also feels the Hippodrome will enrich and benefit Baltimore's existing array of theaters. "We have a rich brew. What we don't have is the king of the heap, and now the Hippodrome will not only have it in the size of the theater, but will have that vibrant richness that a historic restoration has. It is a crown in a great suite of services that already exists," he said. "It adds to the community theater we have on up through Center Stage."

Here's a more detailed look at the season:

  • Hairspray, Sept. 9-21, Mechanic. Adapted from John Waters' 1988 movie, the musical focuses on a rotund, socially conscious Bawlamer teen named Tracy Turnblad, who wins a coveted spot on a local 1960s TV dance show. "I can't wait for Baltimoreans to experience this celebration of their city. How fitting it is to bring it all home," said the musical's Baltimore-born producer, Margo Lion, who will be honored by Mayor Martin O'Malley today. Bruce Vilanch is expected to star as Tracy's mom.
  • A Night with Dame Edna, The Show That Cares, Oct. 21-Nov. 2, Mechanic. Created and performed by Australian Barry Humphries, Dame Edna Everage comes to Baltimore for the first time. Known for localizing the show (winner of a 2000 special event Tony Award), Humphries' outrageous, rhinestone-bespectacled alter ego will undoubtedly have some colorful things to say about Charm City.
  • The Exonerated, Nov. 11-23, Mechanic. Jessica Bank and Erik Jensen created this documentary work from court testimony and verbatim interviews with former death-row inmates. Presented as a staged reading, the off-Broadway show continues to attract celebrity performers; casting for Baltimore is yet to be announced.
  • The Graduate, Jan. 6-18, Mechanic. Terry Johnson's stage version of the classic 1967 movie about a recent college graduate and a seductive older woman broke box-office records at the Mechanic when it played a pre-Broadway engagement there last season. After finding more box-office gold on Broadway, the play is going on tour; no word on who will shed the towel worn by Anne Bancroft on film and Kathleen Turner in the original stage incarnation.
  • The Producers, Feb. 10-March 14, Hippodrome. One reason for renovating the Hippodrome was to be able to bring in large-scale shows that wouldn't fit in any other local venue. This record-breaking, 12 Tony Award-winning musical is an example. Its run will be the longest Baltimore has seen since Rent played a five-week engagement at the Mechanic in 1998.
  • Les Miserables, April 13-25, Hippodrome. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel played the Mechanic six times. Chowning justifies bringing it back by saying that, with the Broadway production scheduled to close in May, this could be the last chance to see the show in its full glory."
  • Mamma Mia!, May 11-30, Hippodrome. Playwright Catherine Johnson tucks nearly two dozen ABBA songs - from the title number to "Dancing Queen" - into this tale of a soon-to-be-married young woman's search for the father she never knew. Though the story is small, the production is not. "This is another example of a type of show that couldn't play Baltimore if it weren't for this theater," Chowning said. Subscriptions to the seven-show season cost $204-$602. For more information, call 800-343- 3103 or visit www.broadway acrossamerica.com/baltimore.
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