PHOENIX: ‘ANYTHING’ FOR A LAUGH, AND LOVE

Clockwise from center: Jennifer Grasso, Kelsey Susino, Torie-Marie Gigante, Carly Nelson and Taylor Wallace are Reno Sweeney and the Angels, as the shipboard romp ANYTHING GOES marks the maiden voyage for a new season of Phoenix Productions musicals. (Photos courtesy Phoenix Productions)

By TOM CHESEK

The way Gary Shaffer sees it, “this is the best time of year to do a show — you work all winter, then suddenly it’s spring. People are energized and ready to come out and be entertained.”

If it’s mid-April in Red Bank, it simply must be time for a new season of musical entertainments from Phoenix Productions, the borough-based troupe that’s made a 25-year habit of putting on shows at that classiest of “community theater” venues — the Count Basie Theatre.

With pretty much the entire tri-state region endeavoring to shake off an epic winter of our collective discontent — and the irritating remnants of Sandy still being winkled from the Shore’s cracks and crevices — producer Tom Martini and company have rightly deduced that ours is a community in need of a little levity, a dose of laughter and a love song or two. The result is a 2013 season that favors a set of four feelgood Broadway classics over some of the edgier fare (Sweeney Todd, Rent, Miss Saigon) put forth by the Phoenix phalanx in recent years — a season that kicks off in style  Friday, April 19.

The vessel for this maiden voyage of 2013 is none other than Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s rousing romp of romance and rhythm on the high seas, and a crowdpleaser that director Shaffer describes as “a good, solid show with a funny book –and the cherry on top is the Cole Porter songs.”

Jennifer Grasso is a shipboard showgirl, while Kelsey Seaman and Michael Santora are a demure debutante and a stowaway stockbroker, as the Phoenix Productions staging of ANYTHING GOES docks at the Count Basie for two weekends. 

The Toms River resident — an actor, producer, writer, PR man and college professor whose idea of “taking a break” is to spend the St. Pat’s month of March gigging up and down the Shore with his popular Celtic-rock combo The Snakes — cites the Depression-era tunefest as one of his favorite shows, a standing that’s boosted by the presence of such effervescent Porter perennials as “It’s De-Lovely,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “You’re the Top.”

“He wrote about sophisticated things, but for everyman, and when you’ve got such rich lyrics, you have to act them,” says the stage veteran, whose own leading-man experience with the show convinced him only that “I was NOT a song and dance man.”

For his hat-trick project with the Phoenix company (following Thoroughly Modern Millie and Annie), the director who upholds the “Comedy Rule of Threes” works with a ship’s manifest of some three dozen performers, topped by Michael Santora and Kelsey Seaman (as the show’s young lovers Billy and Hope), plus Jennifer Grasso as evangelist turned showgirl Reno Sweeney, and Anthony Preuster as “Public Enemy No. 13,” Moonface Martin.

Revised extensively after its initial previews in the wake of the Jersey Shore’s SS Morro Castle maritime disaster (and revamped again for its Broadway revival runs in 1987 and 2011) Anything Goes retains its seafoam-frothy storyline of confused identities, comical gangsters, and love between a bored heiress and a savvy stowaway — and, according to Shaffer, features production values befitting Phoenix’s residency at one of the Garden State’s premier theaters.

“The other day, the scenery people brought in the ship’s smokestack, and it was enormous. It almost didn’t fit,” he said. “But then you realize how you need that sense of scale when you’re sitting at the back of the Basie, taking it all in.”

“They have literally and figuratively raised the bar in that big theater,” Shaffer said. “They don’t look at things like, ‘we can’t do it.’ The producer’s reflex is, how do we make that work?”

Running for two weekends, Anything Goes also represents what Tom Martini calls “a respite from reality” for two Monmouth County-based members of the cast — Bob Brown and Michele Kakalecz, both of whom lost their homes to the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. The company’s co-founder has announced that Phoenix is planning to offer free Anything Goes tickets to any and all people who were rendered homeless by Sandy.

Opening Friday night at 8 pm, Anything Goes continues with five more performances through April 28. Tickets are priced between $22 – $32, and can be reserved right here. The 2013 Phoenix season continues at the Count Basie with productions of The Music Man (July 12-21), Damn Yankees (September 20-29) and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (November 15-24).