Melissa Javorek of Red Bank (left) appears with Ian Brown-Gorrell and Brianna Rosado in the Phoenix Productions recreation of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” opening this weekend at the Count Basie Theatre. (Photos courtesy Phoenix Productions)
By TOM CHESEK
In the words of producer Tom Martini, it’s a project that’s squarely “in our sweet spot… it’s a new show, it’s classic Irving Berlin, and it’s something for which we’re pulling out all the stops.”
When the borough-based community stage troupe Phoenix Productions returns to the Count Basie Theatre this weekend, it’ll be wrapping and capping one of its most successful seasons ever, with a song-and-dance fest that “we’ve been wanting to do for years” — Berlin’s ‘White Christmas.’
Based on the 1954 movie of the same name with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, the relatively recent stage adaptation has become a hot property with theater companies across the country — thanks in large part to a score of time-tested Berlin songbook standards.
Commandeering the Basie boards for six performances beginning this Friday, November 15, the show also represents a surprisingly rare foray into holiday-themed fare for the pholx at Phoenix, who look forward to the coming new year with an ambitious production-number of a project.
The winter months ahead are scheduled to see the long-running nonprofit troupe make a move from its Phoenix Rehearsal Studio next to the Basie — a facility that still bears traces of its origins as a former WaWa convenience store — to a nearby (and much larger) space at 59 Chestnut Street, across from the Red Bank Armory ice complex.
“We’re looking to start getting it ready after the new year,” says Martini of the building (currently the home of The Academy of Dance Arts) that offers room for two big rehearsal areas (one of which may eventually be purposed as a “black box” theater), a hospitality court, plus in-house scenery and costume workshops to accommodate the increasingly grander scale of the Phoenix shows at the Basie.
“It’s not zoned for public events right now, but our goal is to eventually do some more intimate performances there, in addition to the big Basie shows.”
Those all-singing, all-dancing spectaculars at the venerable venue — a local tradition that has seen the 25-year old Phoenix company up the ante considerably in terms of production values — proceed apace with White Christmas, a show that closes out what the producer describes as “our best year ever for season subscriptions.” Under the supervision of prolific director Anthony Greco, the production stands in contrast to the edgier properties (Miss Saigon, Sweeney Todd, Rent) that the company has taken on in recent Novembers.
Michael Morch and Ian Brown-Gorrell head the young cast in the Crosby-Kaye roles of Bob and Phil, a couple of WWII army buddies made good as successful Broadway showmen. Heading up to Vermont in pursuit of a pair of singing sisters (Laura Gepford, Jennifer Grasso), the guys help their former commanding officer (Paul Caliendo) rescue his failing snow-country inn, wooing and winning the girls in the tuneful process.
If the plot comes across as lightweight as a snow flurry, rest assured it provides a sturdy framework for songs like “Blue Skies,” “Happy Holiday,” “I Love a Piano, “How Deep is the Ocean” and, of course, that well-roasted seasonal chestnut of the title. A troupe of 40 performers — based everywhere from Monmouth County to Manhattan — works here with musical director Bob Sammond, and choreographer Drew Wilfrid.
“This is perfect show to put the whole family into a holiday mood,” said director Greco in a press release for the production. “The sets and costumes are lavish, and the production numbers featuring some very accomplished dancers just keep coming one after another.”
Melissa Javorek — a Red Bank resident appearing as Rita, one of two dizzy chorus girls (with Brianna Rosado as Rhoda) — is quoted as saying, “we get to wear those great period costumes and hair styles of the Fifties. It’s a trip down memory lane for older people, and an introduction to a wonderful world for the youngsters.”
It’s also a satisfying season-ender for Martini, who “battled to get the rights to this show for some time…we reapplied every year, and waited while it went briefly to Broadway and to Paper Mill Playhouse.”
“Because of our proximity to New York, we don’t always get to do the shows we want, when we want to do them…but the upside is that we get to work with the most talented people, from all over the area.”
Opening Friday night at 8 pm, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas continues with five more performances through November 24. Tickets are priced between $20 – $32, and can be reserved right here.