Mechanic takes musical turn New season: 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' and 'The King and I' are among shows announced for 1996-97.

April 09, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre's new season will feature Christopher Plummer in the one-man show "Barrymore" and four musicals, among them "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the Broadway revue of songs by Mike Stoller and Baltimore native Jerry Leiber.

The Mechanic's second season in partnership with the highly regarded Jujamcyn Theaters and Productions also features revivals of "The King and I," "Annie," and "Applause." The "King and I" opens on Broadway Thursday. The other two musicals are pre-Broadway productions, as is "Barrymore."

"Tried-and-true musical comedy, that's what we've got a lot of next year," Brian Liddicoat, the Mechanic's general manager, said yesterday in announcing the lineup for 1996-1997.

"I think the majority of the people interested in this form of entertainment tend to gravitate toward musical theater," added Michael J. Brand, executive director of Jujamcyn Productions.

"Smokey Joe's Cafe," the newest of the musicals, opened last season on Broadway, where it is still running. Performed by a cast of nine, it showcases such 1950s and 1960s Leiber and Stoller pop hits as "Hound Dog," "On Broadway" and "Stand By Me."

Leiber has said part of his inspiration stemmed from sounds and attitudes he picked up while delivering coal and kerosene in Baltimore's African-American neighborhoods for his mother's HTC grocery store.

"Barrymore," by William Luce, was originally announced as part of the 1994-1995 season, but postponed due to Plummer's other commitments. Liddicoat and Brand feel confident it will make it here this time, however.

The show, set in the final year of legendary actor John Barrymore's life, will debut at Canada's Stratford Festival in September, then launch a tour that will culminate in a limited Broadway engagement. Plummer appeared at the Mechanic in 1988 in the title role in "Macbeth" and in 1981 opposite James Earl Jones in "Othello."

"The King and I," a collaboration between Australian, British and American theater artists, is "re-stylized, re-directed, re-designed," said Liddicoat. He described this new version of the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic as "probably the most lavish production ever done of the show and one of the most lavish productions ever to play the Mechanic."

Unlike the revised "King and I," the 20th anniversary production of "Annie" is expected to be highly faithful to the original. It will again be directed by its creator, Martin Charnin, and will begin its pre-Broadway tour at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, where it debuted in August 1976. Nell Carter has been announced as evil Miss Hannigan, but the title role has not been cast.

"Applause" is the 1970 Tony Award-winning musical based on the backstabbing, backstage movie "All About Eve." Stefanie Powers, best known from TV's "Hart to Hart," will play the role originated on stage by Lauren Bacall.

A sixth production, yet to be announced, will probably be a nonmusical, Brand said. He added that though two-week runs will continue next season, he hopes to add a third week to the subscription engagements for 1997-1998.

Jujamcyn's partnership with the Mechanic was formed last summer after one of the weakest seasons in the theater's history. In contrast, the current season, which has included such artistic triumphs as "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Three Tall Women," has also begun to rebuild the theater's financial base. "Jekyll & Hyde," which ended its run Sunday, played to several sold-out houses and averaged 82 percent capacity.

"We're pretty happy with the sales," Brand said. "We're hoping to reinvigorate a lot of the energy [and] make Baltimore again one of the top tryout cities in the United States."

With changes ranging from the cosmetic (new carpeting) to the substantial (more prestigious theatrical fare), the Mechanic appears to be well on its way.

Subscription renewals to the 1996-1997 six-show season are on sale now. The series will be available to new subscribers beginning May 20. Prices range from $154 to $289.

Mechanic 1996-97

Oct. 29-Nov. 10: "Applause"

Dec. 10-22: "Smokey Joe's Cafe"

Jan. 21-Feb. 2, 1997: "Annie"

Feb. 18-March 2, 1997: "Barrymore"

March 1997: To be announced

May 20-June 1, 1997: "The King and I"

Call: (410) 625-4200.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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