Joining “Mormon,” which took the Tony Award for best musical in 2011, will be the Tony winner for best play that year, “War Horse,” a show celebrated for its inventive use of life-sized puppetry. One of last year’s big Tony accumulators, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a play with music based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is also on the Hippodrome lineup.
“It’s a strong, subscriber-friendly season, appropriate for our 10th anniversary,” said Jeff Daniel, president of the Hippodrome at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center. “It’s going to be hard to beat. We’ve even got a great holiday show to balance it all.”
That would be ...“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” the disarmingly retro musical, based on the 1950s movie. It fared modestly on Broadway in recent years, but turned out to have sturdy legs on the road. (It wraps up a holiday run at the Kennedy Center today.)
“Mormon,” which combines missionaries in Uganda with a slew of contemporary social and religious issues, is likely to become the toughest ticket in Baltimore. It will play for only two weeks, Feb. 25 to March 9, 2014.
“We endeavored to get a longer run of ‘Book of Mormon,’ but we couldn’t,” Daniel said. “Subscribers get first right to tickets, new subscribers next. There has already been an increase in subscribers this year, in anticipation of what’s coming. Single tickets for this show in other markets have been tight, so I’m sure that will be the case here, too.”
Subscription renewals begin Jan. 13; new subscriptions go on sale Feb. 10. Subscription packages include three shows that will be onstage for multiple-week engagements, plus a choice of three or four limited engagements.
In addition to “Mormon” and “Starcatcher” (May 6 to 18, 2014), there will be a multi-week presentation of “Sister Act,” the musical based on the popular 1992 movie of that name (June 3 to 15, 2014).
The one-week bookings begin with the season-opener, “We Will Rock You,” a jukebox musical with a futuristic plot and songs by Queen (Oct. 15 to 20).
The other one-weekers are “White Christmas” (Dec. 3 to 8); “War Horse” (Feb. 4 to 9, 2014); and “Ghost: The Musical,” based on the hit movie from 1990 (April 8 to 13, 2014).
Like the blockbuster musical “Wicked,” the critically acclaimed “Peter and the Starcatcher” provides a kind of prequel to a familiar and much loved children’s story — in this case, the J. M. Barrie classic “Peter and Wendy,” with a back story for Peter Pan and Captain Hook.
“I think audiences here are going to come out for a quality piece like ‘Peter and the Starcatcher.’ It’s a funny play with music, more of an art piece, really,” Daniel said.
“War Horse” is very much an art piece, too, and also comes with music. Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo that also inspired the 2011 Steven Spielberg film, it’s the emotional saga of a boy and his beloved horse, and how both end up amid the trenches of World War I. Extraordinarily realistic puppetry brings the horse and other animals to life onstage.
The rest of the Hippodrome season is decidedly lighter in tone — “To show we do not take ourselves too seriously,” Daniel said.
The Queen-fueled “We Will Rock You” has been running for more than a decade in London, despite eviscerating reviews from the British press when it opened. Productions in several other countries have proved equally successful.
“We thought we would take a shot at it,” Daniel said. “We like to offer something off the wall. I felt very comfortable with that choice. The music of Queen is great, and what got me is how they use it in the show.”
“Sister Act” and “Ghost” also opened in London before landing on Broadway and also generated mixed-to-dismissive reviews, but found supportive audiences.
“‘Sister Act’ is a popular title and has a very talented cast,” Daniel said. “As far as ‘Ghost’ is concerned, for some reason it has surveyed quite strongly when we ask our audiences what they would like us to bring here.”
In addition to the season’s seven main shows, three return engagements will be offered outside the subscription, each playing a limited run: “Jersey Boys” (Nov. 12 to 24); “Blue Man Group” (Jan. 10 to 12, 2014); and “West Side Story” (April 26 and 27, 2014).
If all goes well, there will be even more activity at the Hippodrome, this time not related to Broadway. Discussions are underway between the Hippodrome and the Pennsylvania Ballet, one of the country’s major professional dance companies.
“We are most interested in establishing a presence in Baltimore and would certainly like to have the community support our efforts,” said Michael Scolamiero, executive director of Pennsylvania Ballet. “I think what will probably happen is that we will present a family-friendly, full-length ballet in the spring of 2014 and use that as a test pilot, if you will.”
The company was founded in 1963 by George Balanchine protege Barbara Weisberger, who is also longtime artistic advisor of to the dance program at the Peabody Institute. There are other Baltimore connections. Pennsylvania Ballet’s training company has performed at the Baltimore School for the Arts; an alumnus of that school, Jermel Johnson, is one of the company’s principal dancers.
Partnering with the Pennsylvania Ballet is in keeping with Daniel’s goal of making the Hippodrome a performing arts center, not just a presenter of touring shows. The recent designation of the theater’s west side neighborhood as the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District provides another incentive.
“The long-range plan is for the ballet to have a full subscription season here, with productions, master classes, and educational outreach,” Daniel said. “Fundraising and the educational component would likely be done through the Hippodrome Foundation.”
Daniel said that the Hippodrome has stabilized financially, after years of annual $1 million utility bills necessitated by a deal with the Maryland Stadium Authority, a deal re-negotiated in 2011. There are 9,000 subscribers now, down from the 14,000 that signed up when the handsomely renovated theater opened in 2004.
“We renew over 80 percent of our subscribers, and I’m very proud of that,” Daniel said. “That said, we are in the risk business, and I will be scouring the earth to find shows that will keep subscribers after ‘Book of Mormon.’ The more people who subscribe and stay with us, the more we can leverage that to bring more to Baltimore.”'BOOK OF MORMON' PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS