'09-'10 Hippodrome Season Announced

Theater

April 24, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center will trim its slate of offerings of national touring musicals and plays next season from seven shows in its subscription season to six - a response, an official says, to the fiscal crisis.

"We definitely want to be responsive to the economy," says Stella Benkler, the center's executive director. "We don't want to have to offer discount tickets to get patrons in the door, so we decided to be proactive. We're cutting our subscription season from seven shows to six, which means the cost of subscriptions will go down. The average ticket price will not increase."

The 2009-2010 season appears to be composed of risk-free crowd-pleasers. Two big shows have previously been announced: Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (Jan. 12-24), which was a favorite of audiences on Broadway (though not of critics), and In the Heights (Feb. 23-March 7), which won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical.

The third major offering of next season will be the Alfred Hitchcock spoof The 39 Steps (June 1-13, 2010), currently enjoying a well-received run on The Great White Way.

Filling out the lineup is Fiddler on the Roof (Oct. 20-Nov. 1) starring 74-year-old Chaim Topol as Tevye, the Russian milkman trying to marry off his five daughters; a new touring production of Dreamgirls, the musical about a trio of female singers thought to have been inspired by the Supremes (December); and a reworked version of Stomp (March 16-28), featuring two new routines using such props as tractor-tire inner tubes and paint cans.

Subscriptions go on sale Monday.

Two additional shows will be available for extra fees: Mamma Mia! (Nov. 23-29) and The Phantom of the Opera, which will visit Baltimore for roughly a month in the spring.

"We think we have a season that will really appeal to our patrons," Benkler says.

It's worth noting, however, what the Hippodrome's season won't include next year: shows that appeal primarily to a young audience (such as this season's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and How the Grinch Stole Christmas) and edgier fare. Nothing in the coming season, for instance, will be comparable to Spring Awakening, with its themes of incest and teen suicide (it opens in June), or to Avenue Q's X-rated puppets (which ran in December 2007).

Benkler said that child-oriented shows were scratched from the lineup because of patron complaints. "Our customers really made the point that they prefer a more traditional Broadway season," she says.

The number of big Broadway musicals that tour each year is limited, and the competition for blockbusters can be fierce. Jersey Boys, for instance, the phenomenally popular show based on the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, will skip Baltimore this year and stop instead at Washington's National Theatre for more than two months.

In contrast, In the Heights, which tells the story of a close-knit Latino neighborhood in New York, isn't currently scheduled to play Washington. Chances are, though, that the touring cast will not include Heights' talented writer and star performer Lin-Manuel Miranda.

"Sometimes the biggest shows come to the Hippodrome and bypass Washington," Benkler says, "and sometimes it's the other way around."

A six-show subscription for the 2009-2010 season will cost between $124 and $557, as compared to the seven-show packages sold this season for between $145 and $605. In addition, 182 seats in the balcony that previously were in the top price bracket will now be sold for middle-tier prices.

Benkler said the economy has taken a toll on attendance. Since 2004, when the renovated theater reopened, the venue has averaged about 12,000 subscriptions each season. This year, that number dropped to 10,500.

"People have been hesitant to commit in June to seeing shows for the coming year when they don't know what the future will hold," Benkler says. "But even when times are hard, people still need to have fun."

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