PiscopoAwards host Joe Piscopo says he was saved by high school theater.

It’s the local high school equivalent of… well, just call them the Basies.

The Count Basie Awards, to be precise, an annual set of honors recognizing outstanding achievement in the dramatic and musical productions of Monmouth County’s high school theater companies.

Sponsored by Moser IP Law Group and hosted at the Count Basie Theatre, it’s an honor that’s grown in stature every year since its inception. And tomorrow night, teens and faculty from all corners of the county will gather at one of the best-known entertainment venues on the East Coast to compete for top bragging rights in acting, singing, dancing and directing.

Scheduled to be recorded for DVD release, the event is to feature musical numbers by several of the nominees, along with a celebrity guest host, a fiftysomething guy whose name is synonymous with the Garden State: who else but SNL alum (and frequent Red Bank day-tripper) Joe Piscopo?

The comedian who branded the phrase “What exit?” into our cultural consciousness has indeed been a familiar presence off GSP exit 109 in recent times, having performed his supper-club music set at Broad Street’s River’s Edge Cafe, and delivered his big-stage Salute to Sinatra show at the Basie last December (fronting an orchestra conducted by his regular bandleader, Red Bank’s own Joe Muccioli) in between other jaunts into town.

Geraldo was the one who turned me on to Red Bank,” Piscopo tells redbankgreen while he’s enroute to a photo shoot at the Bridge Avenue studio of Danny Sanchez for some new head shots. “The town is just SMOKIN’! The theater’s a real center; the restaurants are great. You guys can be justifiably proud of it all.”

As for how Piscopo hooked up with the gig, “I have to thank ‘Joe Mooch’ — he’s the guy who really got me doing this,” he says.

“Jessica (Nasoff, Piscopo’s assistant) is from Red Bank also. The people who are running my life are all out of Red Bank!”

But based on his own experience, Piscopo is also a serious advocate of the performing arts in school curricula.

“When I was in high school — West Essex High — I was not a great kid,” the North Caldwell native says. “My sister got me to go down to drama class, and I have to say that the one thing that got me through those years was the performing arts.

“It’s a discipline that’s not unlike sports,” Piscopo continues. “It’ll straighten you out, give you purpose.”

As Piscopo tells it, winning a sought-after Lincoln Center Student Arts Award was a turning point in his life, one that “made me very proud, and gave me the positive reinforcement I needed at that time in my life.”

Piscopo is also the founder of the educational media organization known as the Positive Impact Foundation. “It’s what they’re trying to do with the Basie Awards. It’s important to give positive reinforcement to kids, no matter what walk of life they’re from.”

A total of 32 student productions, representing 19 Monmouth County high schools, are represented as nominees at the 2008 Basies, with Red Bank Catholic‘s staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream netting six nominations (including ones for lead actresses Erin Levine and Tatiana Johnson) in the dramatic presentations category.

Also receiving nods in that category were Matt Dubrow and Amanda Rothman, for the Red Bank Regional production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. The controversy-tinged presentation of The Laramie Project at Ocean Township High School led the dramatic nominations with eight.

A complete list of nominees in the musical presentations category — including several for RBR’s Beauty and the Beast, RBC’s Once Upon a Mattress, and The Wiz at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional — can be found right here.

Tickets to the 7p Basie Awards are priced at $15, and can be reserved at the theater’s online box office.

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