In 1994, Baltimore theaters had a growth spurt, two embattled mega-musicals made it to Broadway, and Wagner went country-western.
The growth spurt began in January, with the unveiling of a renovated and enlarged facility for the theater that bills itself as // the oldest continuously operating community theater in the country -- the Vagabond Players. In March, Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore opened for business in Washington Village. July saw the debut of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival outdoors at the Cloisters. And in November, the itinerant Everyman Theatre found a permanent home on North Charles Street.
Not all local theater news was about growth, however. The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, which originally announced two plays for its inaugural season, settled for one.
More consequential was the decision by the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts to reduce the runs of its 1994-1995 subscription shows by one week, done in response to decreased single-ticket sales and requests from producers. In addition, the city announced it was taking over the Pier Six Concert Pavilion from the center. The takeover should help the center regain its financial footing -- a necessity if it hopes to move to the much-needed new performing arts center proposed for the Mount Royal cultural district.
Meanwhile, in terms of what appeared on stage, the biggest news concerned two musicals that had show-business themes. After a highly publicized casting brouhaha, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" opened on Broadway last month. Glenn Close won the lead role of faded silent screen star Norma Desmond; she also won reviews.
One month earlier, director Harold Prince's magnificent re-interpretation of "Show Boat" sailed smoothly to Broadway after riding a wave of controversy of its own. The uproar began at the Toronto debut, when a group called the Coalition to Stop "Show Boat" labeled it racist. "Show Boat's" producer subsequently brought suit against the Ontario government, claiming it contributed funds to the coalition.
But enough about controversy. Here are some of the serious and silly theatrical events of 1994:
Hog-tie your Wagner. Composer Scott Warrender and librettist Jim Luigs reduced Wagner's 20-some hour "Ring" cycle to 110 minutes, transplanted it to Texas and cast five actors in 30 roles. The result was "Das Barbecu" -- one of the cleverest, most popular shows ever mounted at Center Stage. Regrettably, a revised version fared less well off-Broadway, where theatergoers failed to appreciate the subtleties of cattle-horned Valkyries and synchronized-swimming Rivermaidens.
Cast of thousands, payroll of one. If compressing the "Ring" sounds impressive, consider two actors who portrayed a total of 56 characters in separate one-person shows. In "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith stirringly depicted 44 real-life figures in and around the Rodney King trial. Smith's Broadway debut, it earned Tony nominations for best play and best actress. Meanwhile, Danny Hoch, one of New York's deservedly hottest young performers, portrayed a dozen fictionalized urbanites in "Some People." The show sold out at the Theatre Project before opening at New York's Public Theater, where it has been extended twice.
How many angels can dance on the head of a Tony Award? The two-part epic, "Angels in America," made Tony Award history by winning best play two years in a row. How was this possible? The two parts opened in successive years. The touring production of this extraordinary examination of AIDS, politics and religion comes to Washington's Kennedy Center this spring. In the meantime, "Slavs!", the latest work by "Angels' " author Tony Kushner, opens at Center Stage next month.
The melody lingers on. In March, director Jerry Zaks' revival of Frank Loesser's 1950 "Guys and Dolls" looked as lush at the Lyric Opera House as it does on Broadway. Two months later, "Crazy for You" -- which features Ken Ludwig's vastly improved take on the script of 1930's "Girl Crazy" -- was a breath of fresh Gershwin air (also at the Lyric). And, in July, "Les Miserables" visited the Mechanic Theatre for the third time, reaffirming that .. it's one of Broadway's worthiest spectacles.
Hot 'n' cold 'n' bare. Not all oldies were golden, however. At Olney Theatre, a Cole Porter revue called "Hot 'n' Cole" took "Anything Goes" literally. Actors stripped to their skivvies, and at one point an actress pulled a condom out of her bra. Earlier in the season, cast members bared everything in the revival of "Hair" that launched a national tour at the Mechanic. Despite direction by James Rado, who co-wrote and starred in the 1968 original, the production felt like a bad hair day.