By TOM CHESEK
Long before there was a Two River Theater or even anything resembling a nightlife in downtown Red Bank, there was Phoenix Productions, an intrepid little troupe of weekend warriors who sought only to put on a show for their friends and neighbors.
It’s a lovely sentiment, and it’s at least part of the reason why, 20 years on, the nonprofit Phoenix organization is still in the business of “recreating your favorite musicals in extravagant revivals” a mission made manifest once more this Friday, when the company revisits the Sunday-school rock opera Joseph and the Amazing Techniclor Dreamcoat.
Still, 20 seasons is a long time to be doing it simply for the love and applause so what’s its secret? What’s Phoenix got that all the other community stage competitors don’t got?
Well, for one thing, it’s got the Count Basie Theatre to call home: a Broadway-scaled landmark equipped with a huge stage, a fabulous curtain and the mystique that surrounds a stage shared by some of the most iconic figures in culture.
Phoenix also has the Raffle; a welcome little promotion whereby some lucky ticketholders win gift certificates to a fine Red Bank restaurant or local business, and it’s one of the more ingenious methods ever devised to bring people back to their seats at intermission time.
Most of all, though, Phoenix Productions has Tom Martini, the executive producer from day one and the man who brandishes the famous basket at raffle time.
An unassuming gent who comes across as more of a neighborly Rotary Club officer than some tyrannical mini-David Merrick of the suburbs, Martini abetted by Laurie Edwards and a cohort of directors, choreographers and other stage mavens has quietly built a brand on repeat stagings of sunny offerings such as West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound of Music, as well as the occasional venture into such darker fare as Jekyll and Hyde and Assassins.
It’s a company noted for packing its casts with young performers the better to pack the seats with relatives yet willing to tweak its family-friendly image with a production of Hair that gave audiences a glimpse of places where local producers generally don’t Let the Sun Shine In.
Now, Phoenix embarks on a season cut down from four shows to three due to a planned summer/autumn hiatus during which the Basie will undergo renovations. But the schedule is as ambitious as ever.
“It’s a mixed blessing, in that we’re losing a show this year although the audience is getting better theater,” says Martini. If anything, he adds, “we’ll have had more time to prepare” when Phoenix presents its first staging of the lavishly appointed Disney musical Beauty and the Beast, scheduled to go up on the Basie’s revitalized boards the weekend of November 14 through 16.
Before that, of course, there’s Joseph, an early success from the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Promising an “elaborate Joseph with a fairly grand set,” Martini and veteran director Todd Aikens are pulling out all the stops with an enormous cast (56 people!) that ranges in age from 7 to 70.
Phoenix returns to the Basie boards on June 13 with an encore presentation of Disney’s High School Musical, the TV-spawned force of nature that sold out a one-weekend 2007 engagement . It’s being produced by Wendy Dobbs and directed by Tom Frascatore.
“It’s an unbelievable phenomenon, one that just keeps growing and growing,” Martini says.
So the show goes on in grand fashion at the Count Basie, and Martini remains as appreciative as ever of his troupe’s home venue.
“Our relationship with the Basie has made us into the company we are today,” he says. “We’ve grown to fit the venue.”
Tickets ($22-29) for any of the six scheduled “Joseph” performances through April 13 may be reserved at the Count Basie website. Details about Phoenix’s fundraising efforts are available at the company’s website.