2/20: Phoenix Rises to the Occasion

Dan Peterson reprises the PRODUCERS showstopper “I Want to Be a Producer,” when Phoenix Productions celebrates its 25th anniversary this Saturday at the Count Basie.

They come from all walks of life — suits and students; public servants and professionals; homemakers and hobbyists. Some have even made a go at show business as a career — but if the hundreds of actors, singers and dancers who have appeared with Phoenix Productions have one great thing in common, it’s that they get to strut their stuff on the same stage that’s hosted the likes of Tony Bennett, George Carlin, Al Pacino, Cary Grant, and a Boss named Bruce.

That stage is of course the Count Basie Theatre, where for eight weekends out of each year the folks at Red Bank’s resident community theater company offer up an array of musical favorites that have ranged from old favorites (Annie, Fiddler, The King and I) to new phenoms (High School Musical, Hairspray, Rent). It’s an affiliation that has spurred the borough-based Phoenix phalanx to artistic and technical heights undreamed of by church-basement troupers — and here in 2012, it’s a self-set standard that’s expected to be met and exceeded during the company’s milestone 25th season (the company has also done performances of select shows at Lakewood’s Strand for the past few seasons).

This Saturday night, February 25, the Basie building will serve as host venue for 25 Years of Phoenix: An Evening of Music and Memories — an event in which over two dozen veterans of past Phoenix productions perform a set of signature tunes from 20 of the more than 100 shows that Phoenix has mounted since their first summer-stock endeavors in 1988. Scheduled to appear are such returning guest stars as David Weitzer (last year’s Sweeney Todd), former Miss New Jersey Amy Polumbo (Cinderella) and Debby Dutcher (Broadway’s Phantom), along with such Phoenix phaves as Todd Aikens, Jennifer Forziati, Martin Grubman and Michael Kroll.

The 8 pm concert event is preceded by a 6 pm VIP Cocktail Party in the Basie’s Carlton Lounge, and followed by a 10 pm reception with the cast inside the Phoenix Rehearsal Center, the troupe’s HQ (and the one-time “other WaWa” for Red Bank old-timers) located right next door to the Count’s castle at 111 Monmouth Street.

Also on the agenda is the endearingly traditional raffle drawing, conducted by Phoenix founding father, board chairman and Red Bank resident Tom Martini. A silent auction boasts some fairly star-kissed items up on the block; fitting for a troupe of “weekend warriors” whose list of Honorary Trustees includes the likes of Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and Olympia Dukakis. UpperWETside put in an early bid for an interview with the not-easily-shaken Mr. Martini.

By the time they get to Phoenix: David Weitzer (JEKYLL & HYDE, SWEENEY TODD) and former Miss NJ Amy Polumbo (CINDERELLA) are among the performers returning to Red Bank for “A Night of Music and Memories” from Phoenix Productions.

upperWETside: A little nuts ‘n bolts background if you please, Tom, on Phoenix. What was the very first show you staged, how many shows have you done all told, and have you been doing everything out of the Basie for all 25 of those years?

TOM MARTINI: We’ve done 112 different shows, a lot of them several times each— we’ve done West Side Story four times; more than any other show.

Our very first production was Jesus Christ Superstar, which we did at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft — we also did Camelot that first season, with The Fantasticks in between because it was light on scenery and we were able to work the rehearsals around the other two shows.

Our first two years were at CBA, in the summertime, and when we moved to the Basie we just did summer shows at first, until someone came up with the idea of spreading them out into spring, summer, fall and late fall.

During those first years, we had no real home for our operation — we rehearsed our shows at St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel, performed them in Lincroft or Red Bank, and built our scenery at a place in Ocean Township. And we had no storage space for scenery and costumes when we weren’t using them.

What saved us, and what allowed us to be here celebrating our 25th anniversary, was that we were able to move into a property in Red Bank that had been a lumber yard over on Water Street. And then a little later on we somehow found a way to buy the building we’re in now, which you might remember was a WaWa many years ago. It’s a perfect location for us, right by the stage door of the theater, even though we’ve kind of outgrown it in some ways. But if we hadn’t found the WaWa, I don’t know if we’d still be in business.

I love it in Red Bank; I moved here because I’m in love with Phoenix and I get to pop on in to the theater and the Rehearsal Studio whenever I want. So you see there’s been a lot of history for us here…and a history of good things happening just when we needed them to happen.

For a year or two around the turn of the millennium, that Rehearsal Studio of yours was also the setting for some smaller, more experimental “black box” type of shows; you hosted some other events like Improv Jam comedy and an appearance by the great animator Bill Plympton. Any thoughts on getting the place up to speed once more as a public performance venue?

We haven’t forgotten about it, and we’ve taken some steps during the off season to get the necessary renovations in…hopefully sometime not too far from now we’ll be able to open it up to the public again.

Well, in the meantime you settle for making your home in one of the grandest and most gorgeous theaters in the region. This is something we’ve asked you before, but does being part of the Count Basie Theatre schedule, performing on the same stage where so many show business legends have done their thing, spur you on to greater heights than you’d ever dare aspire to if you working out of a school auditorium or church basement?

It’s a blessing and a curse…when you’re playing the Count Basie, you have to be THAT good. There’s no settling for just good enough, and that’s something that everyone in our company is aware of. And it’s a real thrill to step out on that stage, whether you’re one of the kids in the cast or an old veteran who’s been doing this for years.

We’ve been amazed at some of the audiences we’ve gotten in for our shows. It’s also great that we’ve been able to keep so many of the old favorites on the schedule while taking on a lot of newer musicals; getting whole new audiences and a new generation of actors trying out for the shows. They get excited when they see the Basie for the first time.

Well, it looks like you’ve assembled quite a lineup for the anniversary show. What can we expect to see onstage this Saturday? Will it be concert style, or will you have your performers in costume?

The men will be in tuxes and the women will be in gowns, and there are a couple of places where we may add an iconic prop or something that’s associated with the song. But this is as much a reunion for the performers as it is a gala. When we started planning this thing, we were a little worried about pulling it together because the date we got from the Basie was earlier than we wanted. We made a wish list of 27, 28 people to invite to perform, and within two hours we had 24 accept!

We’ve got people flying in from other parts of the country. We’ve got David Weitzer, Debbie Dutcher flying in; Amy Polumbo, who’s now in Memphis…we’ll even have all three of our Arthurs from our Camelot productions!

And we trust you’ll be doing your traditional raffle at intermission?

We’ve got a raffle, and a silent auction with some amazing gifts — we’ve got things for theater lovers like tickets to the Basie and Two River Theater; one of our people donated a poster for The Book of Mormon signed by the Broadway cast. And we’ve got some interesting non-theater stuff also, like a seat from Giants Stadium, autographed by Eli Manning!

What’s also interesting is that we did a big mailing to 50,000 people, and we’ve been selling a lot of tickets for the event to people who are new to our list; who never attended any of our shows before or even heard of us before. I think that for a lot of people, this event is a great way to see what we’re all about — and for our old friends, it’s something that’s relationship oriented. We have this one couple who met back when they played Lancelot and Guinevere in Camelot; they did Carousel together, fell in love, and now they have teenage daughters who are performers too.

It’s been an amazing 25 years. The thing about community theater is that you start out saying ‘let’s just do a season’ — and all of a sudden, my gosh, you’ve been at it for five, ten, fifteen years.

Tickets for Saturday’s 8 pm performance and pre/post-show receptions ($30 – $75) are still available from the Basie’s online box office, or directly from Phoenix Productions right here. Check the websites for advance orders and info on the 2012 Phoenix season at the Basie, beginning April 20 with The Wizard of Oz.

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