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‘CUTTING EDGE’ ENTERTAINMENT AT BASIE

sweeneyAttend the tale of SWEENEY TODD: David Weitzer is the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Ali Gleason the lady with those curiously popular meat pies, when Phoenix Productions brings the Sondheim smash to the blood-red banks of the Navesink.

By TOM CHESEK

Those of you who neglected to adjust your clocks this past weekend have extra cause to be confused during this interlude of snow before Halloween and of store aisles that ring with jingle bells sometime north of Columbus Day.

When the curtain comes up on the famous stage of the Count Basie Theatre on Friday, Red Bank’s own Phoenix Productions will have extended the season of the witch right up to Thanksgiving’s threshold — with a major mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s operatic, ghoulishly Grand Guignol musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The Tony-lauded “black operetta” — making its Red Bank debut hot on the heels of an Asbury Park production by Lincroft-based Premier Theatre Company — has apparently joined Dracula and Rocky Horror as something of a Halloween signifier in the years since the screen version that starred Johnny Depp as the man with the razor (and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, maker of distinctive meat pies). Still, ghoulish as the storyline is, director Tom Frascatore suggests another, altogether different reason to tremble at the name of Sweeney Todd.

sweeney_cast_webA CHRISTMAS CAROL it ain’t: The SWEENEY cast (including Michael Chartier, second from left) is appropriately grim as they prepare to take to the Basie boards on Friday night, November 11.

“This show is a BEAR!” sighs Frascatore on the eve of the play’s first tech rehearsal. “It’s a bear technically — and the score is a bear if you don’t have a trained voice.”

A Sweeney-phile since catching the original 1979 Broadway production with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, the Middletown native gives Sondheim’s groundbreaking hit all due credit for transforming American musical theater (“without it, we wouldn’t have Rent“) — while owning up to the challenges inherent with a work in which more than 80 percent of the plot is conveyed through song rather than spoken dialogue.

“The songs here ARE the dialogue, the soliloquies and the conversations,” the director explains. “I’ve had to tell one of our cast members, who’s an amazing singer, that he needed to sacrifice a bit of vocal quality in order to put across the dialogue clearly.”

Based on an infamous “penny-dreadful” story, and set amid the Dickensian coal-soot and corruption of Victorian-era London, the musical is characterized by Frascatore (a frequent member, in lighter moments, of Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore‘s unofficial stock company of players) as a “game changer” that “reinvented our expectations of the Broadway musical, and the comfortable distance that existed between us and the musical theater.” Employing the multi-level “cube” set design of the original, the Phoenix production (a show that announced itself with an October 8 blood drive event at the Phoenix troupe’s Monmouth Street rehearsal studio) jettisons the pop stylings of non-singer Depp in favor of Sweeney in all his big-voiced glory.

Starring as the wrongfully convicted family man turned avenging Demon Barber is David Weitzer, the actor-singer who was last seen in Red Bank as the lead(s) in Jekyll & Hyde (and for whom Sweeney joins a rogues gallery of characters that include not just the dualistic Doctor, but the caped Count Drac). Co-starring as Mr. Todd’s partner in viscera-drenched vengeance is Ali Gleason, with love interests Anthony and Johanna played by John Sechrist and Jessica Lopez, a young veteran of the Phoenix phalanx.

Appearing as the vividly villainous Judge Turpin — the guy who railroads our hero off to an Australia penal colony, rapes his wife and makes a lusted-after “ward” of his daughter — is actor and playwight Michael Chartier of Long Branch, a fellow Billy-Jane regular here being “seriously creepy” in one of the most truly vile roles ever conceived for the stage.

Annie it’s not, of course – a reference to the family-friendly favorite that opened the 2011 Phoenix season, and a huge success (over 1,500 patrons attended one of the show’s Sunday matinees) that makes possible a project like Sweeney, a show that, in Frascatore’s words, “could crash and burn in terms of ticket sales, and we’d still come out okay.”

It’s all part of a winning strategy by which Phoenix kicks off their schedule in April with a production that’s geared to large family groups, and follows up in summer with a “youthful, high-energy, dance oriented” show like Hairspray that draws from a maximized talent pool of young performers. Early autumn offers up a “golden” classic for longtime audiences like South Pacific — itself a recent revival hit on Broadway, resulting in a production that did “15 to 20 percent better for us than the normal ‘golden’ shows.”

And November’s season closer? As Frascatore tells it, after Phoenix has made the nut for the year, “we can take a chance with something artistic — a little dark.” Something, in fact, very much like the tale of Sweeney Todd.

Opening Friday at 8pm — a performance at which Frascatore and his fellow members of the board expect to be announcing their 2012 slate of shows — Sweeney Todd continues with five more performances at the Count Basie through November 20 (and unlike previous shows in this Phoenix season, there will NOT be an opportunity to catch any additional performances at The Strand in Lakewood). Tickets are priced between $22 – $29, and can be reserved right here.

Remember: Nothing makes a Red Bank friend happier than to hear "I saw you on Red Bank Green!"
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