BALTIMORE - The emerging Baltimore theater scene continues to develop new ways - and new places - to raise its voice. Shoestring troupes are getting grants from the state housing commission to buy buildings. Baltimore Center Stage has refurbished its 19th-century complex for $28 million. And Everyman Theatre, long centered on local actors, is staging a new musical for the first time.
"People here are very prideful," says Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, the London-bred writer-director who took his current job in 2011. "They want Baltimore to feel like a theatrical town."
Baltimore Center Stage
For $28 million, a lot is new, starting with the name, as the company attaches the city to its brand. (That brand is traveling internationally: Kwei-Armah's Bob Marley musical, "One Love," is at England's Birmingham Repertory Theatre through April 15.) Its historic building has been home to the city's oldest and most prestigious professional troupe - Baltimore's Arena Stage, tackling a full range of classics and new works, plays and musicals - since 1975, with a second sizable stage added on the fourth floor in 1991. The new design capitalizes on the vintage brick and iron materials and the ample footprint of the old 1899 Loyola High School and College.
Audiences will appreciate the more open concept of the lobby, which now features a bright "word wall" of famous quotations from plays. Artists - especially emerging playwrights - should benefit from the new option of a 99-seat theater that is affixed to the remodeled Head space on the fourth floor.
"The fourth floor, as a whole, is the new heartbeat of the institution," Kwei-Armah says. There's a new light-filled costume shop, the company's first dedicated education space and a refurbished chapel (an attractive, intimate space for social events).
Rethinking the Head Theater upstairs, named for mid-20th century ski and tennis equipment designer Howard Head, was critical. In practice, the "flexible" theater was hard to reconfigure, and its acoustics were bad. And Kwei-Armah, an actor-turned-playwright-turned-institutional leader, wanted a smaller space for different kinds of works.
The result is a remodeled Head that does double duty as a studio space. The Head's newly flexible seating can range from around 200 to over 400. The new 99-seat Third Space, as it's called, is basically the rear of the Head's stage, with a wall sealing off the Head's more expansive seating area as needed.
The 541-seat Pearlstone stage on the ground floor has been technically upgraded but is fundamentally unchanged. It's currently home to writer-performer Kelvin Roston Jr.'s solo "Twisted Melodies," a brilliantly sung but intense downer of a musical about the mentally ill pop-R&B singer Donny Hathaway ("This Christmas," "Where Is the Love" and other duets with Roberta Flack), who took his own life in 1979.
The new Head was shown off with Natsu Onoda Power's fantastical staging of Mary Zimmerman's "The White Snake," an eyeful (and earful, with seven live musicians) that made expert use of the ample thrust stage jutting into the audience. The Chinese fable was well suited to the simple backdrop, outsize costumes and heightened acting of Power's production - now closed, to make room on the stage for the Third Space's April 13-23 debut with British playwright Polly Stenham's drama "That Face." All Third Space tickets are $25.
Everyman is so rooted in Baltimore actors that company members' faces adorn the decor of the redesigned bank space it opened in 2012. "Los Otros" is different: It's the company's first musical, doubly notable as the East Coast premiere of a 90-minute suite by Tony-nominated composer Michael John LaChiusa.
The two-character piece about two very different lives (straight white woman, gay Latino man) that gradually intersect is authoritatively sung by New York-based performers Philip Hernandez and Judy McLane, with music direction by Signature Theatre's Jon Kalbfleisch. It's not a big, splashy show; in its essential concentration on the score (and in its fundamental social justice concern), it recalls the far more overtly political Andrew Lippa oratorio "I Am Anne Hutchinson"/"I Am Harvey Milk" last year at Strathmore.
Not coincidentally, the director of these like-minded projects is Noah Himmelstein, Everyman's new associate artistic director. Himmelstein shows utter comfort telling "Los Otros" through the alternating narrative streams set up by LaChiusa and Ellen Fitzhugh, whose book and lyrics are almost entirely free of cliche. (The story is partly autobiographical.) The incidents are vivid, which is a tribute to Fitzhugh's lyrical economy and LaChiusa's fluid music, played by six musicians (guitar, bass, percussion, keyboard, trumpet, reeds).
Picture the Mexican family secretly hopping off a train. Imagine illegally ferrying your new Mexican nanny across the border in your trunk. Feel the apprehension as the young migrant worker nearly gets caught by the boss with his pants down. The songs gracefully snake through long excursions, easily segueing into areas that suit the time and place: Latin rhythms, do-wop, easygoing jazz.
The main shortcoming is that the show, which first appeared five years ago at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and which has been revised, thanks to a commission from Everyman, takes so long to clue you in to how Lillian and Carlos connect. Obviously, this intimate song cycle is not the stuff of Broadway blockbuster dreams, but it's expertly performed. Hernandez and McLane are splendid singer-actors, and it has a personable, relatable, sturdy pulse.
Center Stage and Everyman are the city's established power players. A few smaller troupes are trying to put down roots the old-fashioned way: by buying property.
Le Mondo is a cooperative venture aiming to open the first of three phases later this year, a few blocks north of Everyman on Howard Street. The block severely needs redevelopment, which is why the project received $300,000 for acquisition (a $250,000 tab) and redevelopment from Maryland's Department of Housing and Community Development.
Developer Ted Rouse is partnering with several small-budget arts groups on the project, which will eventually cost about $6 million, says Carly Bales, one of Le Mondo's three creative directors.
A lot of fundraising lies ahead, but when it's done, Le Mondo hopes to be an artist-owned complex with several performance/gallery/studio spaces available to the city's growing independent creative scene. Commercial components such as restaurants and market-rate apartments are planned to make the enterprise financially sustainable.
"We would be landlords," Bales says of the "ecosystem" envisioned by Le Mondo.
The city's stock of fallow property is driving a two-way opportunity, Bales says. Artists can help revitalize derelict strips; the city and state can help the artists get started. The combination, Bales says, means Baltimore is "able and empowered to take huge, bold risks."
The ultra-small women-based troupe lost its tiny storefront in the Station North neighborhood two years ago but has landed upright in the Hamilton-Lauraville neighborhood, well northeast of downtown. Maryland's Department of Housing and Community Development strikes again, this time with a grant that allowed Strand to buy a $225,000 storefront on Hamilton-Lauraville's historic main street. It's now a 50-seat theater that Strand plans to run as its own stage and as a busy community arts hub.
"Our board thought it was absolutely vital that we find some sort of a home base again," says executive director Elena Kostakis, who describes Strand's two-year nomadic period as "scary." "That we would buy one didn't enter our minds."
Strand has been without an artistic director since Elissa Goetschius briefly followed Rain Pryor's abbreviated 2012-2013 tenure. Kostakis now runs it, with creative input from an arts council on the Strand board. Four shows are planned for next season, and Kostakis says that in the spirit of community service that helped Strand land its grant, the goal is to keep the space humming with a variety of events, including youth programs, music and rentals for other Baltimore organizations needing a platform. Full Circle Dance Company is performing several times this month, and Strand's developmental "Women on Top" series will present Alice Stanley's new play "Sally McCoy" April 21-23.
"Younger companies are getting off the ground with quality work. That is the upward momentum," Kostakis says. "You feel incredibly encouraged that theater artists are staying in Baltimore. And we try to help each other. Strand will be helping as many as we are able to."
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"Los Otros," music by Michael John LaChiusa, book and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. Through April 23 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St., Baltimore. Tickets $43-$64. Call 410-752-2208 or visit everymantheatre.org.
"Twisted Melodies," written and performed by Kelvin Roston Jr. Through April 23 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Tickets $20-$64. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.
"That Face," by Polly Stenham. Through April 23 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Tickets $25. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.