By TOM CHESEK
In some respects, it’s not all that different from those good old school talent shows that generations have known and tolerated.
Only in this case, many of the kids doing the singing, the dancing and the acting are skilled and budding pros who already have agents. And instead of an all-purpose room with folding aluminum chairs, the show goes up on the boards of one of the most famous entertainment stages on the East Coast; a Red Bank venue whose marquee groans these days with the names of such heavyweights as Wayne Newton, Lewis Black and a local talent by name of Springsteen.
Under the supervision of Executive Director Yvonne Lamb Scudiery, the Cool School program at the Count Basie Theatre has been offering an ambitious and highly regarded curriculum of classes and workshops for aspiring actors, musicians and dancers aged 4 to 16 years. The course selections, taught by a crew of seasoned pros, range from funtime-atmosphere weekend activities to some very serious seminars in professional development and audition technique.
Young performers from all over Monmouth and parts of Ocean County as well as master-class students hailing from precincts in northern NJ and NYC have taken some crucial first steps at the Count’s Cool School. The sessions, which begin each January, April, July and September, climax with the presentation of a quarterly Cool School Showcase, the Winter 2008 edition of which comes to the Basie stage on the evening of March 18.
Between 150 to 200 kids participate in each showcase event a number that generally translates into some 500 to 600 parents, friends and family members buying tickets and filling the seats of the venerable Monmouth Street venue. It’s a factor that Scudiery has come to realize the value of, even if it means an extra level of logistical responsibilities for the already hands-on director. As a choreographer with Company of Dance Arts, she’s staged many a junior ballet for area audiences, too.
“I’m the one they come to when they need five stools or three boxes on stage,” sighs Scudiery, the first and only director the program has ever had. “We only get one quick tech run-through at 4:00 the day of the show.”
A dancer by training, the dynamic Scudiery is a fascinating study in laser-like energy and diffuse passions; a classical music lover who admits to being baffled by many of the pop acts who pass through the Basie, even while retaining a soft spot for the jagged junkyard rhythms and ghostly midway melodies of Tom Waits.
She’s a lifelong advocate of exposing kids to the arts, yet she exhibits a refreshing candor when discussing the realistic prospects of most kids who yearn for a performing-arts career.
“It’s all about the hard work and the discipline it takes to ace what you want to do,” Scudiery maintains. “That’s the most important lesson.”
“As a teacher, I’m not a ‘you’re so special’ kind of person,” says Scudiery, who began her own training as “a total nerd” under the daunting watch of some very strict Russian dance tutors. She later overcame her anxieties about performing in front of audiences and even tapped into some latent skills in the area of arts administration.
“I was traveling around the country, being put in charge of all sorts of things,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t talk to anybody about anything other than what I was doing.”
A collection of group musical/dance numbers or skits with some solo pieces from advanced students, the Cool School Showcase presents a sampling of everything the school has to offer, with the exception of the film program (Scudiery promises that streaming video of the best work from the school’s film classes will be represented on a new website, due to make its debut later this year). According to the director, the young filmmakers will be assisting Red Bank-based internet professional Marybeth Maida with a project commemorating Red Bank’s 2008 centennial celebration.
When the Count Basie Theatre takes a hiatus this summer to effect some long-awaited renovations, the Cool School will remain in session. In fact, plans are being drawn up for the August 19 Summer Showcase to be presented outdoors at Riverside Gardens Park, an offering to be produced in conjunction with the borough Parks and Recreation Department‘s summer-camp program.
At the end of the day, the artist and administrator is nothing if not pragmatic about her responsibilities as event producer; a role in which flowery artistic impulses often butt up against the pressures of stage-managing a vintage vaudeville show, or a live Ed Sullivan broadcast.
“Listen, I used to be a nightclub dancer. I played the Latin Quarter in the old days,” Scudiery says. “Backstage, there would be flamenco dancers coming off the stage, bird whistlers going on… It’s kind of like that.”
Tickets for the 6:30p Tuesday show are priced at $10 general admission, and can be purchased online at the Count Basie Theatre website.