An interior shot of the Hippodrome
An interior shot of the Hippodrome
Baltimore now has a glittering theater venue that may provide some competition for Washington, D.C., the city's neighbor 45 miles to the south -- especially when it comes to luring tours of Broadway shows. The restored and enlarged Hippodrome Theatre, the heart of the new France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, has opened to much fanfare. One of two national touring companies of The Producers was in place to debut the facility on February 10 in a glitzy gala. It is hoped that the theater complex will revitalize the city's West Side, but its effect is expected to be felt far beyond the block of Eutaw Street between Baltimore and Fayette streets that is emerging as a new cultural center for the city.

The five-week Baltimore run of The Producers, with Broadway veterans Bob Amaral and Andy Taylor in the lead roles, is notable for several reasons. The production is a lavish one that would not properly fit into any other local venue, and this is the longest engagement of a touring Broadway show here since Rent was performed at the Mechanic Theatre six years ago. The length of the run at the Hippodrome enables the show to be profitable enough to make Baltimore a stop on the tour. (In an unusual twist for this area, The Producers is playing in Baltimore four and a half months before its twin touring company, starring Lewis J. Stadlen and Alan Ruck, is scheduled to make its way to the Kennedy Center in D.C.)

Many of the larger Broadway show tours have bypassed Baltimore in recent years, especially those dependent on spectacle. Local theater lovers have had to drive to Washington venues such as the Kennedy Center or the National Theatre to see some of the big touring musicals. Baltimore is now expected to be able to compete with the Washington theaters thanks to the Hippodrome, which seats 2,286. The theater is expected to draw 400,000 patrons a year, a big boost for a somewhat rundown neighborhood that is now the focus of development in upscale retail and residential properties; 270 performances of musicals, concerts, modern dance, jazz and other types of family-oriented entertainment are planned for each year.

Following The Producers, other touring productions slated to play the Hippodrome in 2004 include Mamma Mia! in May and The Lion King later in the year. The theater's stage, now outfitted with state of the art lighting and sound technology, is more than 50 feet deep and seven stories high -- dimension that no other area theater can match. "This is not just Baltimore's theater," said executive director Marks Chowning at a recent news conference. "We're working to establish this building as a regional performing arts center."

The Producers is the first live show at the Hippodrome in more than 50 years. Opened as a vaudeville house in 1914, it was home to the top stars of the day. From 1952 until the theater's closing in 1990, movies were shown there; it has been vacant ever since. The $62 million renovation project has restored much of the original luster of the Hippodrome and connected it with two other historic buildings to form a 140,000-square-foot entertainment complex.

A great deal of the original architecture and design features have been salvaged or restored, including period lighting fixtures, ornamental plasterwork, gilded moldings, a ceiling mural, and six balconies. Seats, wall coverings, paint colors, and lighting have been chosen to be as close to the original as possible. The stage has been deepened to allow room for modern musicals and 12,000 square feet of lobby space on three levels has been created, along with five concession stands. There is now access to an adjoining parking garage and the building has office space and multi-use facilities for parties and other events.

"The renovation of the Hippodrome and the high-caliber productions coming to our city are evidence that Baltimore is indeed a vibrant, resourceful city," noted Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "The performing arts renaissance in our great city signals that the future for Baltimore is very bright."