'Overwhelming and a huge relief': Inside the return to live theater in Monmouth County

Ilana Keller
Asbury Park Press

The musical "Songs For A New World" calls for a cast of four. 

Phoenix Productions cast 13.

And who could blame them? The March performances of the three-decade-old community theater troupe at the Count Basie Center for the Arts Pop-Up Stage in Red Bank are believed to be Monmouth County's first live, indoor theatrical production since the coronavirus shutdown. Online auditions drew "the best of the best" of actors across the region hungry to perform, director and choreographer James Grausam said.

"Songs For A New World" was a test in many aspects. A challenge to safely mount a full production indoors —  and a challenge to see if jittery audiences would return for it.

Phoenix Productions' "Songs for a New World" returns to the Count Basie Center For the Arts for an encore performance on April 24.

"When we actually walked into the theater, there was a lot of tears, a lot of joy. It was super special," Grausam said. "And I think the audience could feel that and I think that’s why it was so well-received."

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So well-received that Phoenix is bringing back "Songs For A New World" for an encore presentation on April 24.

"Once people saw how safe the audience felt," it led others to inquire about another showing, Grausam said.

Many in the theater world believe there will be a lag in patrons returning to shows as they wait to see how early performances fare, so these audiences feeling safe and then sharing their experiences with others is important.

"It felt like a great return to normal," Grausam added. "They felt all of the protocols were worth it and I think between the cast’s joy to be back and the audience’s joy to have experienced it, it was overwhelming, and a huge relief at the same time."

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A good match

The long-term partnership between the Basie and Phoenix Productions has worked out well. 

"Songs For A New World" will be presented by Phoenix Productions at the Count Basie Center for the Arts on April 24.

The Basie has been hosting intimate performances at the Pop-Up Stage (and its new second performance venue The Vogel) for months, aiming to perfect their socially distant seating, paperless ticketing, digital programs and other procedures, including timed entrance and exits, while Phoenix had started hosting outdoor productions outside their theater. Melding the two in an attempt to bring theatrical productions back indoors was a boon for both — and an important step toward a return to full capacity productions.

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"Every time we have a chance to have —  even if it's just 150 people —  come into The Vogel or come into the Pop-Up stage, it's a practice," Basie President and CEO Adam Philipson said. " I'm glad it's only 150 people right now because when the governor allows us to get to 500 people or one day 1,500 people, we have the protocols and procedures in place to be able to make that a safe experience."

There have been a few bumps along the road.

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"Unfortunately, there's going to be some people that don't like rules and regulations, and I really feel sad about that because there's been unnecessary stress on staff that are trying to keep us all safe that are following protocol and rules and regulations," Philipson said. "I think that that's been the hardest thing."

'Songs For A New World'

The choice of Jason Robert Brown's song cycle "Songs For A New World" was a meaningful one, as the world grapples for footing in a landscape forever changed.

Phoenix's musical director and board of trustees co-chair Joe Wajda first encountered the piece as his "first journey into professional theater in New York," music-directing for The American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

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It was October 2001. He had taken over for a professor who had left the city in the wake of the Sept.11 terrorist attacks.

"Working in the city in October of 2001 is certainly far different than COVID, but the concept of a new world was very fresh in our minds then, as it is now," he said.

"Songs For A New World" will be presented by Phoenix Productions at the Count Basie Center for the Arts on April 24.

Also new was the way that the creative team had to approach the piece in light of COVID.

"It was a surreal experience working in theater and keeping in mind all of the protocols and how many times I had to tell the actors don't hold hands," said Grausam, the director.

"You have to completely reinvent how you think about theater," he said. "It’s so hard to do a love song between two people and say ‘now stay 6 feet apart but still convey intimacy.' You had to wrap your head around how to keep people safe and keep the audience’s optics. It was a great challenge for all of us involved."

The road ahead

With the success of "Songs For A New World," Phoenix is looking forward to a production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at the Basie on April 30 and May 1.

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Down the line, they are eying some outdoor summer performances and hope to return in the fall with a full capacity production of "A Chorus Line," followed by "Elf."

"What a way to come back, with that fully realized love letter to Broadway that is 'A Chorus Line,' " Grausam said.

The Basie has a full complement of Pop-Up Stage and Vogel programming, along with their "Concerts on the Green" series.

Philipson is hoping by fall that the Basie and other New Jersey theaters will be given the green light to operate at full capacity.

But there are many questions remaining, even if that is the case. 

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"I don't know if it's going to mean you have to be vaccinated," Philipson said. "Does that mean that we'll fill up the house? Does that mean that people are going to feel OK? Does that mean that people have the finances to come out? I don't know, but I think we're going to be, like Broadway, in a long recovery."

"I'm really hoping that we've been able to demonstrate leadership. There's many other people that are making decisions about what our next step is and that's not a good feeling when you're trying to budget and you're trying to keep people employed. We’re really struggling to help folks, including the governor, to feel that we do things in a very safe manner and they can trust in us to be able to expand."  

In the meantime, Phoenix and the Basie are relishing their incremental successes.

"Being able to create something again and finding joy and bringing joy again," Wajda said. "I think being able to bring joy to an audience again and just being able to experience happiness and togetherness again, especially in the arts community, that’s what the arts is made for." 

For more information and tickets to Phoenix Productions performances, visit phoenixredbank.com.

To keep with the latest offerings from the Basie, visit thebasie.org.

Ilana Keller is an award-winning journalist and lifelong New Jersey resident who loves Broadway and really bad puns. She highlights arts advocacy and education, theater fundraisers and more through her column, "Sightlines." Reach out on Twitter: @ilanakeller; ikeller@gannettnj.com