SCROOGED by the Seaside

Joseph Necci IS Ebenezer Scrooge, and SCROOGE is BACK on the boards of Asbury Park, baby, when Premier Theatre Company wraps its season ‘neath the Paramount proscenium with four shows beginning Thursday, December 8.

We’re talking Scrooge, Ebenezer Scrooge — the Anti-Claus whose journey of self-discovery continues to fascinate this time each year, even if its all-too-relevant message of compassion seldom seems to sink in on anything beyond a seasonal basis.

Still, it seems all the world’s a Scrooge these days; and all the stages given over to Scrooge, the Leslie Bricusse musical derived from the 1970 film starring Albert Finney. It’s a property that’s made itself quite at home on the Jersey Shore — nowhere more so than The Spring Lake Community House, where a mind-bogglingly long running, multi-generational production recently passed its milestone 300th performance; not that you’ll ever score a ticket to this townie tradition that’s anymore entered the realm of insular local ritual.

There’s another top-shelf option out there for diehard Eb-heads, and it comes courtesy of the man who was present at the creation of that Spring Lake Scrooge. For something close to a generation’s worth of time, producer-director-impresario Mark Fleming and his Premier Theatre Company have been presenting their own tuneful take on that most well-roasted of Dickensian chestnuts, at venues that have ranged from Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre, to the Henderson stage of Lincroft’s Christian Brothers Academy — to the Paramount Theatre on the Asbury boardwalk, to which Fleming and friends return for four performances beginning Thursday, December 8.

It was to Asbury Park — a broke-down, beat-up, end-of-the-century version of the city that was too often likened to “downtown Beirut” and “the South Bronx” when it was mentioned at all — that the Premier troupe migrated about a dozen years ago, scheduling entire seasons of family-friendly musicals at what was then still a drafty, dowdy old auditorium that resembled Miss Havisham’s Wedding Cake in Great Expectations (and adjacent to little more than the stale coffee grounds of the last Howard Johnson’s in New Jersey). They even went so far as to open a storefront studio and gift shop in a Cookman Avenue corridor that was still largely boarded up.

That Premier’s faith in the city’s comeback was as premature as it was premonitory came as no surprise — but after packing up the steamer trunks and moving full-time to Lincroft for several seasons, the company gave it another go in 2010 when they brought the strange tale of Mr. Scrooge back to the haunted balconies and catwalks of the Paramount, neighbored now by boite bistros, boardwalk boutiques, beachside bars and a booked ‘n busy Convention Hall.

Here in 2011 — a season split evenly between Lincroft and Asbury — Scrooge puts the nightcap on an autumn interlude in which Premier announced single-weekend stands of three fully staged musicals (Joseph and Sweeney Todd were the others) at the respectably renovated, venerable venue.

If you’ve been out on the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury boardwalk at any time in the past few months, you’ve probably stopped to watch any of the very visible rehearsals that the Premier players have conducted in and around some of the pavilion storefronts. If you’re like at least one Ocean Grove couple, you took it a step further by signing up for parts in one of the shows.

This being a newer, more active (but no less weird) Asbury town, Fleming and company brainstormed such “guerrilla marketing” tactics as a living-dead Londoners lurch in full Scrooge costume during 2010’s record-setting NJ Zombie Walk (plus a short ‘n sweet Sweeney preview during last October’s Undead Festival).

This year’s model Scrooge will be sufficiently teased for the December 3 First Saturday celebration, when Premier sponsors (and decorates) a shuttle trolley to the city’s downtown tree lighting ceremony. It’s all part of a “Premier Experience” promotion that includes discounts at Hotel Tides, The Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel and a whole lot of favorite eateries around town.

As for old Scrooge himself, he’s played here by a returning Joseph Necci, a Premier regular who — just to give some perspective as to the degree of commitment put forth by actor and company alike — started in the show 23 years ago in the role of Young Scrooge. He toplines a cast of 75 adults and kids that includes Mary Keith as the Ghost of Christmas Past, herself a 21-year veteran of Fleming’s troupe.

As for Fleming, the “founder of this feast” had a few things to say on a recent, un-Scroogely warm afternoon out on the boards — a scene that was radically different from the first time that Premier made a bid to become the Paramount’s resident theatrical company. Take it away, Mark; we’re about to be visited by some spirits…

I. DEAD AS A DOOR-NAIL:

When we did our first shows here, this end of the boardwalk was in what we call its ‘plywood and pigeons’ phase. The boardwalk itself was still under repair, and there was almost nothing open up and down the whole stretch; not really any place for our audience to go before or after the show.

We did Titanic when it was icy cold in here…our poor cast members felt like they were soaking wet and freezing to death in the North Atlantic. And we did Scrooge in a blizzard; the city plowed Fifth Avenue and Sunset Avenue so our audience could get in and out of town.

For the opening night of Scrooge in 2002 we got our own Christmas tree, which we decorated and lit over in Bradley Park. During another show, we came out of the Paramount and saw all these fires over in the park; there were tents and cannons and guys in uniform…a whole Civil War re-enactment camp that nobody remembered to tell us about. The next day we had to compete with the sound of cannon fire out on the beach.

Now of course you’ve got all this amazing stuff going on around the boardwalk…we’re here beneath a 30 foot tall tree in an arcade full of shops and restaurants.

II: CHRISTMAS PAST:

I live nearby in an 18th century farmhouse, complete with its own ghost, in what they would call the “borning” room…pregnant women of the household would go in there to birth their babies.

A lot of the neighboring homes are built on property that was once part of the house I’m in. It’s a neighborhood, including the Ross-Fenton House on Edgewood, where a lot of celebrities from Broadway and Hollywood used to weekend and party back in the day…”Hollywood Lane” is a name that’s been attached to it.

Ethel Merman came here; Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were photographed at a “speakeasy” inside one of my neighbor’s homes…and Helen Morgan famously arrived at a party by biplane, direct from a performance in New York.

The Paramount of course has its share of ghost stories, and some of it is very tragic…there was a fire in which people were killed, back before they had all the fire exits and fire escape. But I like to think that what we’re doing here is appreciated by the permanent residents. During our tech week for Sweeney Todd, one of our crew took a video on his phone; another person in our company was playing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” on iPod — speaking of Ethel Merman — and when he played back the video, you could see these orbs of light moving around as the music played; it’s like they approved of our presence.

III. CHRISTMAS PRESENT:

This is such a great environment for families, kids, seniors…they take such good care of this building. Madison Marquette has been awesome. I remember when they pried open all these boarded up stalls in Convention Hall after so many years, and how quickly and efficiently they got everything in shape for businesses to come in here.

What’s happened here in the past nine years is mindblowing. Everyone who came into town in the late 1990s and early 2000s has been the renegades, the survivors…they’re the ones who’ve made it happen. They thought we were crazy for coming here…now it’s like, how did you guys know this place was going to start happening again?

We have some of the best talent in the area…people from national tours; a lot of regulars that have been with us for decades. And this year we’re getting involved with people from the Asbury Towers seniors residence; they’ll be pitching in as ushers and costumers.

It takes a village, takes a team; we’ve been blessed with a lot of positive people who’ve been willing to jump into all the fun madness.

IV: CHRISTMAS YET TO COME:

Next year we’ll be developing new programs in conjunction with Asbury Park…we’re doing something called Premier Premiere Stage, where we’ll be conducting a national search for a drama, a comedy and a musical…it’ll be a whole day event, where a jury picks the top entry each category.

We’ve got some exciting new stuff on the schedule for next season also…we’ll be doing the New Jersey debuts of Next to Normal in March, which we’ll be announcing for a different, smaller venue than the Paramount, so stay tuned for that. And we’ll be doing Legally Blonde for the first time in July.

V. THE END OF IT:

Performances of Scrooge are at 8pm Thursday and Saturday, December 10 (there’s a sold-out benefit concert by NJ punksters The Gaslight Anthem at Convention Hall on Friday, December 9) with 1pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday, December 11. Take it here for tickets ($25, with discounts for seniors, students and kids under 14) or call (732)774-STAR; thank you very much.

Prior to the December 8 opening night, the Paramount’s reception area will be the setting for a 5:30pm Holiday Toy Drive Benefit hosted by Asbury Park Mayor Ed Johnson and Sgt. Connie Breech of the APPD; tickets ($40 with a toy donation, $50 without) are available by advance sale only by calling 732.774.7827, and include complimentary bar (by the Mayor’s Ball Foundation) and food (by Brando’s Citi Cucina), plus silent auction and 50/50.

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