‘ANNIE’ WHICH WAY YOU CAN, AT THE BASIE

annieAt left, Carly Nelson is ANNIE (and Oliver is Sandy) in the Phoenix Productions staging of the musical favorite. At right, Annie and her fellow orphans bedevil Lauren J. Cooke as Miss Hannigan. (Photos courtesy Phoenix Productions)

By TOM CHESEK

From church basement to charity bash, from middle school to midsummer stock, there’s probably never a weekend when somebody somewhere is NOT staging a production of Annie, the sassy musical period piece based on Harold Gray’s seemingly ageless comic strip character Little Orphan Annie.

Which begs the question: how can the sun come out”Tomorrow” when the sun never sets on the Annie empire?

While you ponder that, consider the fact that when the folks at Red Bank-based Phoenix Productions put on a show, they’re mounting it not at that aforementioned church basement, but at the landmark performing arts venue that is the Count Basie Theatre. When the Count’s resident community theater troupe revisits Annie, Daddy Warbucks, Miss Hannigan and company this weekend, they’ll be treading the same boards as have supported some of the most legendary figures in showbiz — and they’ll even put forth a cast that boasts at least one performer with something of a bone-a-fide Broadway pedigree.

shafferberloniComedy specialist Gary Shaffer directs ANNIE at the Count Basie, and animal acting coach William Berloni (pictured here with one of his LEGALLY BLONDE performers) visits Red Bank for a special ANNIE-cillary event on Saturday.

It’s not hard to see why this ever-plucky heroine and the musical that bears her name have continued to strike a chord with the American public. Just as the Annie of the funnies managed to long outlive her creator — maintaining her principles even while missing her pupils — the Martin Charnin/Charles Strouse stage show and at least one of its two movie adaptations have almost certainly eclipsed the memory of the strip that ended its 85-year run in June, 2010.

It’s got an irresistible protagonist whose embodiment of the American spirit seems to increase exponentially with each passing year. It’s got a cool capitalist with a heart of gold (and a dome of chrome). It’s got some great comic villain roles with more scenery-chewing opportunities than anything this side of “Hansel and Gretel.” It’s got a cute dog, scads of adorable moppets — even a cameo by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And it’s got, you know, THAT song, a classic expression of optimistic longing for better things beyond the here and now, the kind that can make you wince when belted by a mini-Merman — but when performed with matter-of-fact conviction and clarity by an honest young singer, it retains the power to lift you somewhere over the rainbow of your choice.

For their first visit to the Warbucks mansion and the Hannigan orphanage in several seasons, the Phoenix phalanx cast Carly Nelson of Manahawkin in the title role, while the company’s artistic director Tom Frascatore tackles the part of the gruff but lovable industrialist. Lauren J. Cooke co-stars as the bitter, boozing and funny-bad Miss Hannigan, with Joe Caruso reprising his 2002 Phoenix turn as her oily con-man brother, Rooster.

Also standing out in a supporting cast that includes Middletown’s Felicia Russell and a half dozen other singing, dancing “orphans” is a real-life rescue story turned canine character actor — the artist known as Oliver, discovered and trained expressly for the part of Annie’s sidekick Sandy by the foremost animal acting coach in the business, William Berloni. Oliver’s handler, who famously found and trained the original Sandy for the 1977 Broadway production (and who’s also worked with dog-stars in such major shows as The Wiz and Legally Blonde), has been looking in on rehearsals all week, and will be making an in-person appearance in Red Bank this Saturday, during an Animal Adoption event detailed here on the ‘green.

Manning the director’s megaphone for Annie is returning Phoenician Gary Shaffer — a comedy specialist, actor, college professor, press agent and hard-gigging musician (in regional Irish-rock favorites The Snakes) with a particular expertise in such farcically frantic ensemble shows as Noises Off and Van Zandt-Milmore’s High School Reunion Musical. While most directors might find the prospect of working with kids and dogs a daunting one, Shaffer praises his younger cast members for their “interesting degree of professionalism on display — and yet they’re still kids, having a great time.”

Over 150 hopefuls (many hailing from the fantastic farm club of the Count Basie Theatre Performing Arts Academy) auditioned for the show, and while the director observes that “a lot of talented performers didn’t get a part in the show,” he’s got every confidence that his cast members (ranging in age from 8 to “hard-knock life”) will put forth a show that’s “as good a value as you’ll find in local theater.”

“Phoenix gives you a big, quality show; in a beautiful theatre, with a 12-piece orchestra and a great team of people all around,” says Shaffer.

“And for a director, this is the best time of year to do a show — you work all winter, then suddenly it’s spring; people are energized and ready to come out and be entertained. It really gets you through the colder months.”

Opening Friday night at 8p, Annie continues with five more performances at the Count’s place through April 17 (if you miss it, there are two more chances to see the show at The Strand in Lakewood on April 30). Tickets are priced between $22 – $29, and can be reserved right here.