Dramatic Revival Theater: At the Mechanic, things are looking up after last year's low point: Financial stability is returning, the quality of productions has improved and subscriptions are picking up.

June 30, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"The sun'll come out tomorrow" at the Mechanic Theatre, to borrow a lyric from one of the musicals being presented there next season.

This might not sound like a big deal, but it's a lot more than could have been said last year at this time, when the theater's future was in jeopardy.

"A year ago, we were concerned it was going to close down," says Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "We thought there was a real possi- bility it was going to go dark."

Now, however, the sun that "Annie's" title character sings about is once again rising on the Mechanic. Financial stability is being restored, the quality of productions has been greatly improved, subscriptions are slowly picking up after many years of decline and the promise of a new theater building beckons on the horizon.

Most of the credit belongs to two organizations -- one local and the other national.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business organization, became involved in spring 1995; its president and chairman are both members of the Mechanic's expanded board of directors.

In addition, last summer the Mechanic formed a partnership with Jujamcyn Theaters and Productions, which owns five Broadway theaters and manages venues in five cities across the United States. At the Mechanic, Jujamcyn serves as a consultant on booking and management.

In hindsight, Michael J. Brand, executive director of Jujamcyn Productions, admits, "I don't think that we realized the amount of problems the Mechanic had. We didn't realize the extent of the feelings of negativity in the community."

Jim Dale, executive director of the Mechanic, is, in his words, "brutally candid" about those problems. "The only way you improve a business is to recognize your errors or shortcomings and go about correcting them," says Dale, a former advertising executive who was named to the Mechanic post in April. "If you're unrealistic about that, you're never going to satisfy your market. And the business we're in is all about satisfying the audience."

One of the chief problems Dale identifies was announcing shows that failed to materialize. Although the Mechanic always includes a caveat in its brochures that "programs, performers, dates and times [are] subject to change," the theater had built a reputation for delivering the productions it promised.

Then, in the embattled 1994-1995 season, half the announced shows ended up being replaced, and there were other schedule and title changes as well. The result was a level of audience mistrust formerly unknown to the Mechanic.

'Comfort level'

Rebuilding trust by making good on promised productions is one of the most obvious improvements made by Jujamcyn, whose dependability stems from its clout as a national organization that books theaters across the country and also produces some of its own shows. "They give you that comfort level that they can deliver what they said they would deliver," says Hutchinson.

Along with trust, Jujamcyn acted immediately to restore a sense of identity and continuity by insisting that all shows be presented at the Mechanic and ending the 12-year practice of presenting the larger musicals at the Lyric Opera House.

Jujamcyn has also made a significant contribution in terms of quality. Artistically, the season before Jujamcyn arrived was one of the Mechanic's weakest. The serious dramas offer all too good an example:

The 1994-1995 season-opener, "Dirt," was a slow-moving, heavy-handed rural drama only partially redeemed by the performance of Ralph Waite in the lead role; "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe," originally billed as "Flowers and Photos," starred a surprisingly passionless Stacy Keach and Margot Kidder in a stilted script; and Willy Russell's one-woman show, "Shirley Valentine," starred Loretta Swit in an eccentric and disappointing depiction of a bored British housewife.

Contrast that with the many artistic high points of the Mechanic's season first season with Jujamcyn.

Both of the 1995-1996 season's dramas were riveting. "An Inspector Calls" featured breathtaking scenery that served as a visual metaphor for the play's theme of the crumbling British upper class. And, though not an audience favorite, Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Three Tall Women" showcased Marian Seldes in one of the finest performances ever seen here.

The line-up did include one change, but that change -- Chita Rivera in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" replaced "State Fair" -- proved the pinnacle of a quartet of lavish musical offerings.

From a financial standpoint, Dale mentions a feat at least as impressive as the return of artistic quality. After losing $500,000 in 1994-1995, the Mechanic managed to break even in the season just ended.

But, he acknowledges, subscription figures are still not what they should be. In the 1989-1990 season, the Mechanic, which was then presenting shows for four-week runs, had 23,000 subscribers -- a record for the theater and, at the time, a record nationally.

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