‘HS MUSICAL’ PHENOM HITS BASIE STAGE

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI

First came the Disney Channel movie ‘High School Musical‘ in January, 2006.

Then the video and the soundtrack broke sales records, giving rise to a concert tour and an ice show. ‘High School Musical 2,’ the cable sequel, is coming out in August. There’s talk of Broadway. And though critical response has been lukewarm, ‘High School Musical’ is now practically an industry.

When Red Bank’s Phoenix Productions announced auditions for ‘High School Musical,’ 306 kids auditioned for 48 parts, says assistant executive director Elaine Eltringham. Running this weekend only at the Count Basie Theatre, the four-performance run is nearly sold out, with only balcony seats remaining.

Clearly, some people can’t get enough of ‘High School Musical.’

“The movie definitely contributed to the interest in (this) show, no doubt,” says Eltringham, who’s also the production’s associate producer. Besides, she says, “not too many musicals have that many parts for young people.”

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Phoenix is a small, nonprofit community theatre known for revivals of Broadway musicals, the kind of place where new performers can rack up some theatre credits and the more experienced can hone their skills. Doing four big-name musicals a year — this season will also bring “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story” — enables the 20-year-old organization (which donates tickets to other non-profits) to also do new and experimental pieces and offer a kids’ summer drama camp, according to a spokesperson.

Take ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ updated via ‘Grease,’ mix it with ‘The Breakfast Club,’ and you’ve pretty much got ‘High School Musical.’ Disney’s variation on the theme has thespians, jocks and “brainiacs” vying for turf. These factions are personified by Gabriella (played in the Phonenix show by Drew University freshman Sabrina Anton), a shy science champion; the basketball captain (Bryan Vitalo of Freehold, a former marine who recently served in Iraq); and his coach (Todd Aikens of Long Branch). Cheerleaders and skateboarders help populate some high-energy dance numbers.

The cable movie launched the career of Deal native Ashley Tisdale, in the role of the unsympathetic drama club president, Sharpay, who tries to derail the lovestruck couple’s audition. Colts Neck resident Jackie Dolan, a junior at Red Bank Catholic, reprises that part here, with Sharpay’s twin, Ryan, played by Greg Shapiro, a Cranford High School junior.

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Caught in the middle is Patty Reed’s character, Mrs. Darbus, the school’s drama teacher, played by Red Bank resident (and RBC alum) Patty Reed , who in her other life is the marketing manager for Nicholas restaurant in Middletown. The multifaceted theatre veteran played a judge in ‘Death Row: The Movie,’ which won an audience award at the 2006 Long Island Big Fish Film Festival. Along with playwright Billy Van Zandt, Reed got her professional start at the Dam Site Dinner Theater in Tinton Falls, which is now the Grist Mill restaurant.

Since then, she’s directed and appeared in numerous dinner and interactive theatre productions. She also raised three children with her ex-husband, Randy Wright, former director of the Monmouth County Ballet.

It was her old friend, Tom Frascitore, the show’s director, who suggested she audition for ‘High School Musical.’

“This is the first musical I’ve been in where I don’t sing,” she says. “But I’m onstage a lot. The camaraderie and the kids are great.”

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Another Red Bank local is Kelly Gemellaro, who teaches dance at RBC. She got the job as choreographer after RBC’s dance program director had to turn it down.

“They took a chance on me,” Gemellaro says, humbly. She’s hardly unqualified, though. She danced for eight years in musical theater, was in the Radio City Christmas show for four years, and says jazz dance “is my forte.

“Audiences will expect to see certain things, such as the ‘Wildcat cheer,'” Gemellaro says. “Any 12-year-old will know every step. I don’t want to let them down.”

Disney’s ‘High School Musical’ is not to be confused (but inevitably will be) with a show of the same name written by Paul Cozby; that one premiered a staged reading at New World Stages in Manhattan in May. Cozby is suing Disney, claiming it stole his idea.

‘High School Musical’ will have evening performances on Friday and Saturday, June 15 & 16, and matinees on Saturday and Sunday, June 16 & 17. According to the Phoenix website, tickets are no longer available online, and the remaining balcony seats are are going fast. For seats, visit the Count Basie box office or call 732-842-9000.

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