THE ASBURY PARK THEATER CO. SALLY’S FORTH

TV legend Sally Struthers is the special guest host — and Broadway actress-singer Carter Calvert headlines the eve’s featured musical talent — whn the new Asbury Park Theater Company makes its bow with a Friday fundraiser at The Asbury Hotel.

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), August 1, 2019

As the iconic hard-hatted Construction Worker character of The Village People — a role that he’s performed countless times in the latter-day edition of that disco-era institution — William Whitefield can be said to truly know what it takes to put on a show; both the choreographed spectacle that plays out to the crowd, as well as the brick ‘n mortar, hammers ‘n nails, elbow-grease reality required to present and sustain the whole grand illuson.

These days, the longtime resident of Asbury Park is trying on another hat — that of producing artistic director for the Asbury Park Theater Company, an ambitious new entity that makes its public bow this Friday, August 2, with a special fundraiser show at The Asbury Hotel.

As the veteran actor, singer, producer, director, composer and arts administrator tells it, “people come here for the culture, but an established theater has been a missing piece…we aim to create a professional theater company for this community, for Asbury Park.”

To make that happen, the Construction Worker teamed up with the Cop — Robert Angelini, the retired law enforcement professional turned multi-tasking player on the area’s stage scene. Angelini served as a founding board member (and artistic director in its later seasons) of ReVision Theater, the professional company that once upon a time staged some memorable entertainments at various bars, bingo halls, basilica, and boardwalk landmarks in the earlier years of the century.

“Both Bob and I are actors and directors, and we have an understanding of what it takes to put on a show,” says Whitefiled, whose tenure as executive director of the Algonquin Arts Theatre saw him play an instrumental role in the establishment of that Manasquan mainstay’s popular Broadway Series of self-produced musicals. “We really wanted to do something here in Asbury Park, and we believe that we’ve got a grip on what’s good for the city.”

With a handful of other professional stage concerns operating in nearby locales like Red Bank, Long Branch and Ocean Township — and with another fledgling troupe of pros (Boardwalk Theater) having announced plans to bring an original musical on the life of Rosa Parks to Asbury Park at some point in 2020 — the APTCo principals look to stake out a distinct streetcorner in which, as Whitefield says, “the idea is to do cutting-edge stuff…we’re not looking to do family theater.”

“We want to keep it edgy, keep it rock and roll, along the lines of what ReVision used to do,” says Angelini. “In addition, we’d want to do small cast plays; the sort of current things that other companies don’t touch.”

Having been formally founded mere weeks ago — and having just been accredited as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization — APTCo is hardly positioned to announce an inaugural slate of productions. But, ready or not, the company prepares to make its first big splash with Friday night’s event, a benefit concert (presented under the semi-Sondheimy title A Little Musical Night) that’s headlined by some familiar favorites from Algonquin seasons past.

Of course, most immediately familiar is the event’s host, Sally Struthers. The Emmy and Golden Globe winning actress who gained fame as Gloria on the groundbreaking sitcom All in the Family (and the character’s self-titled spinoff) previously worked with Whitefield and his Manasquan team on hit stagings of Always, Patsy Cline — and the event inside The Asbury’s ballroom space reunites her with her co-star in that two-woman show, Broadway veteran and frequent Algonquin guest artist Carter Calvert.

“When we found out that Sally was going to be in the area, and that we had the opportunity to snag her for the evening, we said that’s it; we’re going to jumpstart this thing,” Whitefield explains. “We’re getting ready to jump into the deep end.”    

Above: Bob Angelini and William Whitefield of APTCo. Below, Sally Struthers and Carter Calvert, in one of many performances they did together of ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE.

 Interviewed by this correspondent prior to a 2013 stand in Manasquan, Struthers — who by that time had closed in on some 1,000 performances as Louise Seger, the real-life Texas housewife who became country superstar Cline’s number one fan, friend, and confidante — praised her Patsy partner Calvert as “just one of the loveliest people…she mesmerizes me, and she’s got chops. The first time I heard her sing, I started to cry…I’m so in awe of her, I just go crazy.”

“The ‘C’ in Carter stands for charming,” she added in reference to the vocalist who featured in the original Broadway cast of It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, and as Grizabella in the national tour of Cats (to say nothing of her title turn as Evita and other starring appearances on the Algonquin stage). “You get her offstage and she’s absolutely hilarious; every fourth sentence she says will have you wetting your pants.”

Herself no stranger to the live stage, through her numerous performances in Neil Simon’s female version of The Odd Couple and major revivals of Annie and Grease, Struthers will also be introducing sets by Shore area native James Alexander (Broadway’s The First Noel; Little Shop of Horrors national tour) and Jim Newman (Sunset Boulevard; Curtains; Hands on a Hardbody). The 8 pm show at The Asbury will be followed by a post-show cocktail reception with the APTCo staff and guest performers.

After that celebratory event, of course, comes the genuinely Herculean job of building a functioning arts entity from scratch, with Whitefield acknowledging that “our first and biggest task is to find a place to work.”

“The challenge for ReVision Theater was in not having a home,” says Angelini. “The plan is to rent some space long-term…we’d have to renovate it, and organize it into a space with no more than 99 seats, plus dressing rooms, tech areas, and places where we could store everything that belongs to us.”

While observing that the Asbury boardwalk’s Carousel House — the waterfront landmark where ReVision presented many of its earliest and most acclaimed entertainments — “would be a great space to work in again,” Angelini notes that the storage factor remains a major consideration in shopping for a home stage, as the company was forced to abandon seats, risers, and other equipment that it had invested in, for lack of a full-time storage facility.

“There are any number of cool venues that we’d love to be in, but it’s a tricky thing,” adds Whitefield. “Still, we want to be right here, in Asbury Park, and we intend to make it work.”

As Whitefield explains, the company board members (which also include accounting professional Bob Allison, and Jeremy Grunin of the philanthropist family for whom Ocean County College’s performing arts center is named) “don’t want to bite off more than we can chew…our hope is to have that strong home base, and to start small; to not be looking to fill up the Paramount…plus, the bigger the house, the more you pay the actors!”

“The Press Room (the Bangs Avenue bar where ReVision hosted some of its final shows, and which now serves as the popular restaurant and lounge Barrio Costero) just couldn’t accommodate enough seats to make money, so you can’t just settle on the first place that’s available,” says Angelini. “You can say that the difference between us and ReVision is that we intend to have the money together to produce shows before we put them up!”

“The immediate goal is to have have a season together for next summer…most of our shows would be in season, but it’s possible that we could get together a Halloween or a Christmas show…so stay tuned.”

Tickets for A Little Musical Night are priced at $50 for the 8 pm show, with a $100 VIP ticket including both the show and the cocktail reception. Reserve through the APTCo website at http://www.asburyparktheatercompany.org, by email at tickets@asburyparktheatercompany.org, or by phone at (732)455-2202.